Australia’s Prime Minister Kevin Rudd hugs members of the “Stolen Generation” after delivering an official apology on Feb. 13 for the historic mistreatment of Aborigines. Mr. Rudd called the nation’s past policies of assimilation a “stain” on the nation’s soul.
Australian church leaders have applauded the federal government’s recent apology to the country’s indigenous peoples for past wrongs and called for practical steps to address indigenous disadvantage.
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s apology addressed what are known as the “Stolen Generations,” indigenous people removed from their families under old policies aimed at assimilation. The practice continued until the early 1970s.
“The Stolen Generations have held a special place in the heart of many of our faithful,” the National Council of Churches in Australia said in a statement released on Feb. 15. “We rejoice with them that finally their life experiences have been recognized and that we, as a nation, can accept our failures of the past.”
Australia’s major Christian denominations have already apologized for their role in separating indigenous families. Many indigenous children taken from their families were raised on reserves administered by the churches. These stories are recorded in the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission’s Bringing them Home report, which included an apology as one of its key recommendations.
Mr. Rudd said he would follow the apology with action, noting that indigenous life expectancy is 17 years lower than the national average. “Symbolism is important but, unless the great symbolism of reconciliation is accompanied by an even greater substance, it is little more than a clanging gong,” he said, echoing biblical words found in St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.
Indigenous church leaders had long advocated for an apology to the Stolen Generations. Their representatives attended the Australian parliament on Feb. 13 to hear the statement by Mr. Rudd. “Afterwards, a lot of us were walking around with (our) mouths open,” said Graeme Mundine, executive secretary of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Ecumenical Commission. “We never thought it’d happen in our lifetime.”
Mr. Mundine welcomed the government’s stated commitment to clear and measurable policy goals. “It’s a good beginning, but when we take it forward and start to look at things like compensating people taken away there may be some friction.”
Indigenous church leaders have established the “Make Indigenous Poverty History” campaign to focus reconciliation between indigenous and non-indigenous people. The campaign calls on Australia’s government to set goals so that by 2015, indigenous peoples’ living standards and levels of health are comparable to those of other Australians.