The Australian Government removed 30 per cent of Indigenous children from their families from the early 1900s to the 1970s in an effort to destroy the Indigenous population and culture. This is considered by many historians as the most devastating act to happen to Indigenous people by European settlers.
The government took Indigenous children away from their families and gave them to churches, State-run missions or institutions or in some cases to European foster or adopted families.
Children were not allowed to see their families and told they were orphans. They were forbidden from speaking their language or following their culture, given minimal education, provided with poor food and living conditions, and expected to move into low-grade domestic or farming work. Often they were also physically or sexually abused.
An example of life for those children - now known as The Stolen Generations – is documented in the film The Rabbit Proof Fence, based on a book by Doris Pilkington who told of her experience in a WA mission school.
Early Australian government were keen for society to be free of Indigenous people and culture and believed that separating children from their families would achieve this. It also viewed Indigenous people as lazy and that the isolation of children from Indigenous camps was the solution to what they classified as a great problem.
Generations of stolen children have emerged into adult life with intense physical and emotional problems. Without a parental role model, many have had trouble bringing up their own children. In addition, the whole Indigenous community has felt anger, powerlessness, lack of purpose and a distrust of government, police and officials.
Many people who were part of the Stolen Generations have grown up in a hostile environment without family ties or cultural identity. Often they feel insecure, low self-esteem, worthlessness and depression. This can often lead people to suicide, violence, delinquency, alcohol and substance abuse.
In WA, the Department of Indigenous Affairs’ Family History Unit helps Indigenous people trace their family history and cultural ties. A WA Government initiative, the Bringing Them Home Reunion Program, funds family reunions for ‘stolen’ Indigenous people.
On 26 August 1999, the Australian Parliament passed a motion of reconciliation from then Prime Minister John Howard that reaffirmed a “whole-hearted commitment to reconciliation as an important national priority for all Australians” and “expresses its deep and sincere regret that Indigenous Australians suffered injustices under the practices of past generations, and for the hurt and trauma that many Indigenous people continue to feel as a consequence of those practices”.
Government actions such as these are considered important steps in the process of reconciliation, which aims to counter the injustices faced by Australia’s Indigenous people and move towards a more strongly united nation.
The whole country has had the opportunity to express sorrow for past injustices through the annual National Sorry Day, introduced on 26 May 1998, one year after the tabling of the Bringing Them Home report.
Hundreds of thousands of people around the country took part in peaceful marches to express their feelings about the past treatment of Indigenous people and continue to express this each year on 26 May.
Finally, after more than 200 years of changing policies – that began with laws that aimed to protect, then civilise, then train, and then to assimilate Indigenous people – Australian governments and people are ready to accept and celebrate the country’s first people.