18 November 2007

Revisiting the Past - Making it Right

Australia has a rich and proud history and just like any other country we have issues in our history that must never make us proud. But historically these dark moments have always been swept under the carpet or hidden out of sight, yet always haunting us and preventing us from moving forward as we might have done as leaders in reconciliation. The cold hard reality of Australian history is that it does not start in 1788 with the arrival of the first fleet and a couple of boat loads of criminals.

This arrival perpetrated another myth in Australian history that the British were simply off-loading their petty criminals to a desolate land many thousands of miles away; another out of sight out of mind scenario. Yet, another reality that Australia is only now beginning to talk about more openly is that many of these transported criminals were not petty thieves stealing bread and lace handkerchiefs but hardened murders and rapists. So, this badge of honor that many Australians claim of being descended from convicts might also be revisited just to make sure your famous ancestors were in fact petty criminals and not the more-hardened version.

Australia's history started many, many, many millenia before the arrival of the British folks from across the vast seas. Australia may in fact claim to have one of the longest continuing living indigenous cultures in the world. The history of Australia's indigenous population in the post-1788 period is anything but rosy. This tragic past includes the extermination, perhaps even a holocaust in the terms of the outcome, but in any language it was the complete annihilation of the indigenous aboriginal population from Tasmania. When one considers this event it is hardly surprising what was to follow.

It was not until 1967 that Australia's indigenous population were even recognized as citizens, which not only allowed people to vote but also to own property and the like; those things that everyone else always takes for granted. Yet, this is not the start or finish point of this tragic story. The story is also way more than a single blog entry. The policies of successive Australian governments was always characterized as protecting the indigenous population from itself, the underlying premise was very much one of assimilation and not multiculturalism, simply an ill-conceived attempt to make black into white.

These policies included removing indigenous children from their families and fostering them with white families. It is not rocket science to imagine what sort of confusion this is likely to do to a child who is destined to never fit in anywhere and never have a full understanding of their cultural identity and underpinnings. This governmental stupidity spawned the stolen generations and it is only now that the broader Australian community is getting a sense of the tragedy that was allowed to occur under our collective noses.

Once again there is too much to this story for a single blog entry. So, to the point! Can we make the past right? Probably not and probably never. However, we can try. The Prime Minister, although unlikely to be re-elected for another term has indicated that the current government would hold a referendum to insert specific wording into the Australian Constitution to recognize indigenous Australians. Perhaps too little too late, but it is a start. This aside the most appropriate response is a full-fledged apology. This apology must not be short on substance. It must recognize that the policies of the past led not only to mistakes but to tragedy and it is these tragedies that must be recognized. It really is a simple word - Sorry! Let us all move towards reconciliation not only in words but in content. We might not be able to make it right but we can commit to not making the same errors of the past.


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