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.

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