About eight years ago I went to a Peace and Reconcilliation conference. It was hosted by a University in Queensland and this was obviously new territory. As you may have picked up from my blog, I am ALL about peace and recocilliation- they are topics near and dear to my heart. So I had answered a call to present a paper, although all these years later, I can't quite remember what I wrote that particular paper about.
What I do remember was that they had invited delegates from different parts of the Pacific that had experienced recent conflict- Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, Fiji and Tonga. Having brought out these delegates, the organisers decided that it would be a fantastic idea to have a panel of Pacific delegates. As a Pacific Islander, and a person with a keen interest in Pacific history and politics, I was particularly interested in this session, although I didn't actually know what was being addressed, and the agenda item "Pacific panel" wasn't particularly enlightening.
It was a year or two after the break down in law and order in the Solomon Islands, and the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI) had obviously created curiosity and concern- the audience was packed. The lecture theatre was bursting with about 200 people as the Pacific delegates took the stage. A professor introduced the session explaining that the Pacific delegates had not been told what the question would be
There was silence. Even all these years later I can still see the flashes of discomfort on the Pacific pannellists' faces before they schooled their features. A microphone was thrust into the hands of the delegate on the far left, who politely thanked the professor for the question, and for having her as a guest, and then said she did not have an opinion before passing on the microphone. Each pannelist took a virtually identical stance, some elaborating that they did not know enough about the history of the country in which they were a guest to venture an opinion. The Professor looked somewhat desperate. It was obvious that he had been courting controversy and had hoped to create a lively debate. He started trying to prompt and was met with polite and very patient repetition of their stance. I was outraged at the complete and utter lack of any culural sensitivity. I could not believe that the organisers had put the pannellists in this position- it was obvious that each of these Pacific Islanders felt it would be the very height of rudeness, to criticise the country that was hosting their attendance.
As I was not a guest, I did not feel so constrained. I had that morning read an article about "stolen wages". From the 1890s until the 1970s the Queensland Government "controlled" the wages and savings of Aboriginal Queenslanders and Torres Strait Islanders. While it was hard to fathom, in 2003 people had still not received the wages they earned. The article in the paper that day related to the fact that the Queensland government had set up a scheme, a one-time offer, where if you had your wages stolen and you were still alive, you could have a one-off payment of $2000 and relinquish any claim to your actual wages and any interest that may have accrued. I cried when I read that article. I had heard so many Australians claim that whatever happened in the past was the past, that they could not be held accountable for something that previous generations had done. But this was not ancient history, it was a continuing injustice, it was happening that day. People who had been deprived of a way to generate wealth, a way forward, people in abject poverty were not being given what was owed to them (over two decades after it was owed), they were told to take the $2000 and be grateful.
So I stood up and said I was Samoan and also happened to be Australian
In 2008 the Prime Minister of Australia said sorry too. It was a true example of a leader leading with his conscience and with courage. I include the full text of his apology here:
"Today we honour the indigenous peoples of this land, the oldest continuing cultures in human history.
We reflect on their past mistreatment.
We reflect in particular on the mistreatment of those who were stolen generations - this blemished chapter in our nation's history.
The time has now come for the nation to turn a new page in Australia's history by righting the wrongs of the past and so moving forward with confidence to the future.
We apologise for the laws and policies of successive parliaments and governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians.
We apologise especially for the removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families, their communities and their country.
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.
We the parliament of Australia respectfully request that this apology be received in the spirit in which it is offered as part of the healing of the nation.
For the future we take heart; resolving that this new page in the history of our great continent can now be written.
We today take this first step by acknowledging the past and laying claim to a future that embraces all Australians.
A future where this parliament resolves that the injustices of the past must never, never happen again.
A future where we harness the determination of all Australians, indigenous and non-indigenous, to close the gap that lies between us in life expectancy, educational achievement and economic opportunity.
A future where we embrace the possibility of new solutions to enduring problems where old approaches have failed.
A future based on mutual respect, mutual resolve and mutual responsibility.
A future where all Australians, whatever their origins, are truly equal partners, with equal opportunities and with an equal stake in shaping the next chapter in the history of this great country, Australia.
There comes a time in the history of nations when their peoples must become fully reconciled to their past if they are to go forward with confidence to embrace their future."
This week is NAIDOC week in Australia. NAIDOC celebrations are held around Australia in July each year to celebrate the history, culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. This year's theme "celebrates the champions who lived to renew the spirit of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples through the establishment of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in 1972. Forty years ago, the embassy became a powerful symbol of unity. Its founders instilled pride, advanced equality and educated the country on the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. To move forward, we must acknowledge our forbearers, learn from their experiences and ask ourselves… what have their sacrifices meant for me and my family today?" I honour the spririt of struggle and perseverence in the establishment and maintanence of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy- it plays a pivotal role in the Australia that I wish for me and my small family to be a part of, an Australia that acknowledges the indigenous people of this land, and treats them equally. This country has been a land of opportunity and reward for me and for millions of other non-indigenous Australians. It should be nothing less for the indigenous peoples.
This post is a small tribute to the indigenous people of this country. "Sorry" is only the first step.