Opinion: Sorry Day – The importance of knowledge

My name is Carissa Lee Godwin. I’m a Wemba-Wemba and Noongar woman, and Analysis & Policy Observatory (APO) Specialist Editor for the First Peoples & Public Policy Collection. To me, knowledge is important, it’s something that has been passed on between generations within the many nations of the First Peoples of Australia. Unfortunately, a lot of First Peoples’ knowledge has been lost due to one in ten Indigenous children being forcibly removed from their families between 1910 and 1970 – breaking vital links to our generational knowledge.

Significance of Sorry Day

Sorry Day is a day where Australia acknowledges the mistreatment of First Nations peoples, namely the taking of First Nations children from their families, creating what are known as the Stolen Generations. The 26th of May 1997 was the date that the Bringing them home report – a guide to the findings and recommendations of the National Inquiry into the separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families – was tabled in parliament.

Sorry Day is followed by National Reconciliation Week on the 27th of May, which marks the date when the 1967 referendum took place. National Reconciliation Week concludes on the 3rd of June, which is when the High Court Mabo decision took place. The 1967 referendum is significant because this is when First Nations people were finally recognised as part of the Constitution of Australia. The Mabo decision led to the recognition of First Nations peoples and their ownership of land under the Native Title Act 1993 – which recognises the traditional rights and interests to land and waters of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. However, there is still a long way to go on First Nations people being treated equally and being given rights to their land, even with amendments to the Constitution and the Native Title Act.

National Reconciliation Week

The placement of National Reconciliation Week after Sorry Day feels symbolic because in order for us to reconcile between and across cultures, we need to first acknowledge the wrongs that have been done. Reconciliation cannot happen without this first step. National Reconciliation Week has a theme each year, this year the theme is ‘Grounded in Truth – Walk Together in Courage’. This week is an opportunity for different cultures to come together and learn about First Nations people in an act of reconciliation, with organisations such as APO’s host Swinburne University of Technology holding events for Sorry Day and Reconciliation Week.

Public apologies and refusals

On the 12th of December 1992, as part of the celebration for the Year of the World’s Indigenous People, Paul Keating issued his Redfern speech to the citizens of Australia, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, stating his empathy and remorse at the occurrence of Indigenous children being taken from their families. He acknowledged that Australia was to blame for this, as well as the high numbers of Aboriginal deaths recorded in the Royal Commission into Deaths in Custody Report that had been collated the previous year. Over a decade later, then-prime minister Kevin Rudd issued his apology speech on the 13th of February, 2008. This was a significant moment in Australian history, after the previous prime minister John Howard had vocally refused to apologise.

Lasting trauma of the Stolen Generations

One misconception about Sorry Day is that all Australia needs to do is acknowledge that Indigenous children were taken, and be sorry about it. However, the effects of such an act of disregard against human beings doesn’t stop there. Trauma is cruel like that. Australia needs to also recognise the intergenerational trauma that has occurred as a result of the Stolen Generations, the numerous massacres, ongoing police brutality, and institutionalised racism, a lot of which still happens today.

‘It is a test of our self-knowledge. Of how well we know the land we live in. How well we know our history. How well we recognise the fact that, complex as our contemporary identity is, it cannot be separated from Aboriginal Australia.’

Former prime minister Paul Keating

These hostile past and present days have led to a cultural conditioning that has rendered Australia’s First Peoples displaced and unable to swim in a vast Eurocentric sea where only white people get boats, and wish these blackfellas would stop complaining that they are drowning.

Professor Helen Milroy in her Reconciliation Australia’s 2019 Truth-telling Symposium presentation made a clear link between childhood trauma and current issues stating, ‘One of the problems with the current service system is we don’t look beyond the immediate and look at what’s causing some of the mental health problems, the chronic disease, the drug and alcohol use, the criminal behaviour and it comes back to significant childhood trauma’.

The Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission’s Bringing them home report also reflected on the missed opportunities a lot of these displaced people would face. In the report, a three-year study undertaken in Melbourne during the mid-1980s revealed the difference between respondents removed in childhood (33%) and those who were raised by their families or in their communities (67%). According to Dr Jane McKendrick, of the Victorian Aboriginal Mental Health Network, the children removed were less likely to have undertaken a post-secondary education or stable living conditions. Being robbed of their culture and identity would render these people completely isolated, with no one to turn to, which would impact their future relationships. They would be more likely to have issues with the law, to possibly use illicit substances and/or to end up in prison.

It might seem like a long time ago, but with children being taken until 1970, there are still Indigenous people in Australia trying to navigate a traumatised life because of these events. There have also been instances as recent as last year where Indigenous children were taken from their families. These children will grow up carrying the emotional, cultural and sometimes physical traumas that come with displacement. The media’s mission to justify the displacement of Indigenous adults, theft of children, and forcing Indigenous communities to live in poverty, only fuels Australia’s public prejudices against us as First Peoples. As a result we  are perceived as not knowing what’s good for us.

Long road to reconciliation

Reconciliation Australia’s 2019 Truth-telling Symposium report states: ‘about a third of Australians do not know or accept some fundamental aspects of our shared history, including the occurrence of mass killings, incarceration, forced removal from land and restriction of movement.’  This lack of acceptance causes a lack of understanding around the necessity of days such as Sorry Day, and the contradicting presence of Australia Day.

Sorry Day isn’t just about saying you’re sorry, it’s about empathy and acknowledgment. Former prime minister John Howard unfortunately completely missed the point, and stated that he need not say sorry. Does this mean he wouldn’t say sorry to mourning people at a funeral, because the death wasn’t directly his fault? This problematic misconception of what Sorry Day even means, has unfortunately led to the general public ignoring it, or people deciding it doesn’t involve them, in the same vein as not acknowledging that Australia Day is a celebration of invasion, and by extension, the attempted demise of First Nations people.

‘One of the problems with the current service system is we don’t look beyond the immediate and look at what’s causing some of the mental health problems, the chronic disease, the drug and alcohol use, the criminal behaviour and it comes back to significant childhood trauma.’

Professor Helen Milroy

In taking the time to educate ourselves about what really happened, in facilitating the continued living of this history, and consistent acknowledgment of it, is to show empathy, and a true action of remorse, beyond the token apology that this country is quick to criticise.

Passing on knowledge

As someone who has had to endure racism in this country, and still does, I am heartened that events like Sorry Day and National Reconciliation Week continue. Although some Australians might not be open to the idea of showing remorse for the atrocities of the past, we can’t move forward without it. In passing on the knowledge and words of our First Peoples, and never quietening our demand for justice and equality, we create the possibility of a better country for our young people.

In the words of Paul Keating: ‘There is no more basic test of how seriously we mean these things. It is a test of our self-knowledge. Of how well we know the land we live in. How well we know our history. How well we recognise the fact that, complex as our contemporary identity is, it cannot be separated from Aboriginal Australia.’

Carissa Godwin is the Specialist Editor for the APO First Peoples & Public Policy Collectionestablished in 2019 in partnership with the Australia & New Zealand School of Government (ANZSOG). You can get in touch with Carissa Godwin at cgodwin@apo.org.au. For more general enquiries about APO Collections, contact editors@apo.or.au.


Author: Carissa Lee Godwin

First Peoples and Public Policy Specialist Editor