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'We Say Sorry'

Australia apologizes for past wrongs against the continent's Aborigines

By Tim Johnston in Sydney

Australia's Aborigines are among the world's oldest peoples: They are believed to have arrived in Australia from somewhere in Asia about 50,000 years ago. Most lived in semi-permanent communities along the coast; others lived in the bush or the desert. Land was essential to the Aborigines, not only for their physical survival but also as the center of their spiritual life.

In 1788, the first British settlement—a penal colony—was established in New South Wales, on Australia's east coast. Over the next hundred years, as the British colonized other parts of the continent, the Aborigines' land was seized by settlers. Thousands died from European diseases; others were massacred. By the 1940s, most Aborigines had been assimilated as low-paid laborers and servants. They were not granted citizenship until 1967.

Stolen Generations

On February 13, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd opened a new chapter in Australia's relations with the Aborigines, apologizing for past wrongs and calling for a "war cabinet" to improve the lives of Australia's indigenous people.

"The Parliament is today here assembled to deal with this unfinished business of the nation, to remove a great stain from the nation's soul, and in a true spirit of reconciliation to open a new chapter in the history of this great land, Australia," Rudd told Parliament.

Rudd's apology was addressed in particular to the Stolen Generations—the tens of thousands of Aboriginal children who were removed from their families in a policy of assimilation that lasted from the 1860s to the 1970s. In some instances, it was part of a policy to "breed out the color," in the words of Cecil Cook, who held the title of chief protector of the Aborigines in the Northern Territory in the 1930s.

"We apologize especially for the removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families, their communities, and their country," Rudd said as hundreds of members of the Stolen Generations listened in the gallery, some with tears in their eyes.

"For the pain, suffering, and hurt of these Stolen Generations, their descendants, and for their families left behind, we say sorry.

"To the mothers and the fathers, the brothers and the sisters, for the breaking up of families and communities, we say sorry. And for the indignity and degradation thus inflicted on a proud people and a proud culture, we say sorry."

The apology received a standing ovation both inside the chamber and from the hundreds gathered on the grounds of Parliament House in the capital, Canberra. "I thought it was fantastic," says Kirstie Parker, managing editor of the Aboriginal newspaper, The Koori Mail.

But for some people, Rudd's apology does not go far enough because he has ruled out setting up a government fund to compensate the victims of the policies that led to the Stolen Generations.

Former Prime Minister John Howard, who was defeated in last November's elections, had been unwilling to apologize to the Aborigines.

"There are millions of Australians who will never entertain an apology because they don't believe that there is anything to apologize for," Howard told a Sydney radio station last year. "They are sorry for past mistreatment, but that is different from assuming responsibility for it."

Some critics say that Howard refused to apologize because it would have opened the floodgates to potentially huge claims for compensation.

Today, Aborigines make up about 2.7 percent of Australia's 20.4 million people. Their life expectancy is 17 years shorter than for other Australians. The incidence of unemployment, crime, and alcoholism is significantly higher in Aboriginal communities.

Rudd has said the apology will help unite Australia. "It's taken us 41 parliaments to get here," he said on the day of the apology. "Sometimes we are a bit slow."