Australia must deal with the unfinished business of the Stolen Generations through telling the truth of our history, according to Richard Weston, CEO of the Healing Foundation, and a descendant of the Meriam people of the Torres Strait.
It is only through a honest and honourable examination of Australia’s history that we can heal the wounds that are contributing to the over-incarceration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, he writes in this contribution to Croakey’s #JustJustice series.
This process can start with revisiting the recommendations of the Bringing Them Home report in the context of the current policy landscape, particularly given ongoing concerns around high suicide rates, over-incarceration and removal of children, he says.
Richard Weston writes:
The last 50 years have seen some amazing gains – the 1967 Referendum, land rights, better access to education.
We are seeing improved employment outcomes and many of our people are working across a range of industries and public services. We see emerging Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander businesses and entrepreneurs.
We excel in many sports and increasingly our voices are heard in Parliaments in Australia and our own media organisations and journalists producing stories and current affairs of concern to us. Our arts community tell our stories and our experiences in dance, song, film, theatre and art. There is so much to be positive about.
On the other hand, as the 4 Corners Don Dale story showed, we still have a long way to go in areas of juvenile justice, out of home care and adult justice systems. We are over-represented in these systems.
In many of our families and communities there is a crisis of suicide (with some jurisdictions and regions) reporting rates comparable to the highest in the world.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people aged 15-24 years are 5 times more likely to suicide than their non-Indigenous peers; efforts to close the gap in life expectancy are not proceeding at a pace that will meet the 2030 target date for the gap to be closed.
Creating great futures
To create a great future for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders 50 years hence, we cannot knowingly overlook the unfinished business of our Stolen Generations today.
If we overlook the Stolen Generations experience, we ignore the legacy of trauma that drives so much of our peoples’ over-representation in the criminal justice systems, the levels of violence in our communities, child abuse and the ever-increasing crises of suicide.
In spite of the challenges we face, we do have an opportunity to imagine and create a great future for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
But it has to be founded on bedrock of truth and just action.
We need to act now. If we do not revisit the Bringing Them Home Report – reassess and address the recommendations in that report in the contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander affairs landscape, I shudder to think of the wound we will inflict on the spirit and soul of this nation’s future.
I believe that the progress we have made can be the springboard for us to address current challenges and tackle unfinished business. This is not just a job for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families and communities alone. It needs the engagement of all Australians.
We have the opportunity to collectively address the truth of Australia’s history and the impact on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.
A proper national healing process that engages all Australians could unfold and draw us together into a process of truth telling and reconciliation.
We can think of it as it was recently described by Professor Shane Houston, the Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Indigenous Strategy and Services) at the University of Sydney: ‘There is no one silver bullet…there is no substitute for a comprehensive, embedded strategy backed up by real commitment and the hard work that follows in implementation.’
We have to be inspired to believe that in spite of the myriad current day challenges and unfinished business, we can be optimistic and buoyant about the future.
To find this inspiration we have only to look to our own past – 60,000 years of culture and tradition – our own heroes in our own ongoing story.
We can use icons and leaders like Charlie Perkins to inspire us. We can look into our own families for inspiration. I look to my mother – Thelma – who left school after grade 7, worked all her life, raised five children, made sure they all got an education and is still working full time at 80 years of age.
We can look to the amazing survival of our Stolen Generations to withstand a full-blown assault on their identity and their human rights as children; their ability to keep speaking their truth when the nation was in denial.
To be able to tell their heart wrenching stories to the Bringing Them Home Enquiry, and then deal with the disappointment of an indifferent approach to the recommendations of that report.
Their story should serve to inspire us to make the most of the opportunities that they were denied, to honour their lives and recognise the trauma that they still live with.
Our story is a 60,000-year-old tale that still lives. It is an unfolding drama, that has an uncertainty about how it will play out, but we can honour our ancestors and recognise that we are the sum total of all who came before us.
And we can call on our non-Indigenous brothers and sisters to join us to imagine a future that deals with the unfinished business of the Stolen Generations through telling the truth of our history and to continue what the apology started.
We cannot have a healed, reconciled nation without an honest and honourable examination of the truth of Australia’s history.
• This is an edited version of a speech delivered by Richard Weston for the 50th anniversary of the Dr Charles Perkins AO Memorial Oration at the University of Sydney, on the country of the Gadigal people. Read more about the oration here.
Follow on Twitter: @RichJWeston
You can read more than 80 #JustJustice articles published to date here.
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