Peter Read was standing in the great hall in Australia’s parliament building when Prime Minister Kevin Rudd apologised on behalf of the nation to Aboriginal Australians for the taking of their children.
“One of the most moving moments of Mr Rudd’s apology was when I was in the great hall downstairs. People were holding up photos of their parents so the prime minister could apologise to mum and dad. They never got to hear the apology. They just said, ‘mum and dad, he’s now apologising to you on behalf of the government’. It was such a moving moment to bring along those pictures. So it was terribly important, to relieve people from that terrible shame which they have lived through all their lives that somehow I was a bad person or my parents were bad in some way.”
Read, a white Australian, was a leading figure in exposing what had happened to generations of Aboriginal children who were forcibly removed from their families in an effort to assimilate them into white society. The policy had devastating results.
Read was an oral historian and during his work in the Northern Territory, he came across Aboriginal people who would tell him of growing up on a mission station. But their accounts were filtered through the brainwashing they’d been through as children about the reasons. They were made to feel that their families didn’t want them or were unfit to care for them.
“They either believed their parents didn’t want them, their parents were dead, or maybe their parents were drunk, or I’ve been naughty. Without realising that wasn’t the case necessarily.”
Neither Read nor his informants had any framework to understand their narratives. It wasn’t until he started looking into the government archives that he realised the individual stories were part of something bigger, something he describes in one of his books as “nonchalant wickedness”.
“I didn’t realise the sensational nature of the story to be honest because I was more concerned with the individual people, some of whom I knew already from my work. Or I’d met their parents or grandparents in the course of travelling around the state. The enormity of what was going on did take a while to sink in, partly because I was so concerned about the individual stories.
Even the way he would explain it to others was in individualised terms.
“When I showed this to friends who hadn’t been working in the archives with me I wasn’t saying, ‘look, there was this policy designed to put an end to Aboriginal culture’, it was, ‘look this woman has been driven mad by the state’. Some files just say she finished up in an asylum in 1923 aged 38. No more was heard of her. The file just ends there. I’d say, ‘look at this for goodness sake, these people are being driven mad by the state’.”
“It wasn’t really until I was asked to publish a summary for a little government organisation called the Family and Children’s Service Agency. I did it and that became the pamphlet The Stolen Generations, which the government printed.”
“I realised there was something more than a whole heap of individuals who are crushed and broken, but also the enormity of the policy of the government which was designed to put an end to people’s Aboriginality even at the cost of the people themselves.”
The name Stolen Generations was coined jointly by Read and his wife. At first, he referred to those taken as the Lost Generation. His wife, Jay Arthur, said, “’these children weren’t lost’, which is what I called them. ‘They were stolen.’ I said, ‘you’re right.’ So we called it the Stolen Generation.”
“That was a phrase which I’m happy to say entered the language and the national currency. It’s still contested a bit; I would say it’s Stolen Generations plural, not singular. Once people grab hold of it, it becomes part of the national conversation.”
When Read started drawing attention to what had happened, it caused consternation in government circles but never any outright denial.
“The state governments, the officials involved in state welfare were not impressed. In fact, the people who asked me to write the paper were not impressed at all.”
“When it first came out I was always surprised to find out that the policy had no defenders. Where were all these officials, they all ran for cover. Nobody came out and said this is bullsh*t. Or we thought we were doing the right thing. They just ran for cover. The criticism of the historians, including me, didn’t start until the 90s really.”
He was at a meeting of Aboriginal leaders with Coral Edwards, an Aboriginal woman whose family he helped to find and who set up Link-Up, an organisation to help others do the same. They were in a social setting when she began to explain the work they were doing.
“She started to tell the story. These were all Aboriginal people, not many of whom had been taken away. This was before the Stolen Generation as a phrase or a concept was at all well known.”
“You could hear around the room people thinking, ‘Really? Was that what my mum was always banging on about. That’s why I was taken away. Is that why my brother got taken away. Is that why there was such a fear of the welfare officers. We didn’t realise that.’”
He says giving Aboriginal people the larger narrative about what happened to them was an important part of breaking the silence that had been imposed on them through shame and humiliation.
“They were so ashamed on behalf of their parents who hadn’t looked after them properly. This release from shame, that’s the important thing, this release from shame by having the knowledge.”
That broadening knowledge and public awareness culminated in an inquiry by the Australian Human Rights Commission, which was called by the attorney general. The resulting report, Bringing them Home, was released in 1997.
“People were holding up photos of their parents so the prime minister could apologise to mum and dad. They never got to hear the apology.”
New Zealand’s failure to acknowledge its ‘Stolen Generations’
Unlike Australia and Canada, the New Zealand government has refused to hold an independent inquiry or offer a government apology. In fact, it has done the opposite. New Zealand’s Attorney General Chris Finlayson criticised a draft report written by the New Zealand Human Rights Commission in a letter to the chief commissioner. He focused particular criticism on the report’s call for an independent inquiry. The report was never officially released, although it did eventually surface in media coverage.
The concept of Stolen Generations of indigenous children is yet to enter into the general consciousness in New Zealand - it is still perceived as something that happened in Australia.
This is possibly because the rationale for taking indigenous children wasn’t as explicit in legislation or policy. While both Canada and Australia had official policies and even laws focused on the removal of indigenous children, New Zealand’s case isn’t so clear-cut. There’s no smoking gun that shows that was the intent.
However, New Zealand didn’t have an explicit policy or law banishing the Maori language. But it happened systematically anyway through teachers banning it in the Native schools and punishing children who spoke their mother tongue.
Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, UN special rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, says the lack of explicit policy doesn’t mean New Zealand can deny that indigenous children were targeted.
“Even if there is a lack of explicit policy, if the actions that have been taken are similar, then we can say it’s a parallel. It’s really the act that is more important than even the policy. In some cases there are policies. But what is even worse is if there are no policies but the actions that have been taken are basically the same in nature. So you cannot say because there was no explicit policy that it never happened.”
What she has noticed while working in different countries where the removal of indigenous children took place is there are similar outcomes in those societies.
“When I did my official visit to Australia a few months ago that was one of the issues that came out very strongly. Even after the inquiry that was done on the Stolen Generations, the situation hasn’t really improved very significantly.”
“I went to the detention centres, the child detention centres and what I saw was that a lot of the kids were actually coming from foster homes where these kids were taken away from their parents and in some of the cases, the parents were also the victims of the Stolen Generation. So somehow this phenomenon continues.”
“I was just in Canada recently and spoke at the Assembly of First Nations, their general assembly, and that was an issue that came up again, about the consequences of residential schools. Willie [Wilton Littlechild] was there, he spoke about his own experience, because he himself has been through these residential schools. There was another report that came out there saying the disproportionate representation of the First Nations in the jails is really alarming. While the FirstNations peoples compose 4.5 percent of the population of Canada, almost 70 percent of those in the jails are people from First Nations.”
Maori also have high rates of incarceration, with just over 50 percent of the male prison population being indigenous, despite Maori making up about 15 percent of the population. For Maori women, the rates are higher.
Also watch: Locked Up Warriors: New Zealand's Prison Problem
But government agencies in New Zealand don’t acknowledge the possible connection between the high rates of Maori going through welfare institutions and other negative social statistics. Political rhetoric around subjects like crime and incarceration is more likely to focus on gangs, even though Judge Carolyn Henwood pointed to Maori gangs originating in welfare institutions in the 1960s and 1970s.
In August, New Zealand appeared before the UN’s Committee on the Eradication of Racial Discrimination. The committee expressed alarm about the abuse of Maori children in state institutions and called for the government to immediately hold an independent commission of inquiry.
“While the First Nations peoples compose 4.5 percent of the population of Canada, almost 70 percent of those in jails are people from First Nations.”
Removing indigenous children: Roots in the British Empire
Read believes the continuing presence of indigenous peoples creates a problem for countries built on colonisation and that they try to eradicate them in other ways - like taking their children and trying to assimilate them into the dominant culture both biologically and culturally.
“In colonising countries, it’s the shame of having indigenous people still around to remind you that the country was invaded. They were a constant reminder and shame that the colonisation of Australia was not as complete as it was supposed to have been.”
He says in certain areas where Aboriginal populations were growing, children were targeted for removal, particularly if the children were of mixed race. The logic was they were a combination of the worst in both races and had to be controlled and assimilated.
He says the tendency of colonial countries to remove indigenous children has deep roots in the practices of the British Empire. A report about indigenous residential schools presented to the UN drew a similar conclusion.
“Relocation of children is a pretty old aspect of British history. British kids were moved out of London to build up the colonies. They need some labour. There’s too many kids in London; they’re the future delinquents, let’s get rid of them, take them out to the colonies. They did the same thing with convicts,” says Read.
“The year convict exports ended in the 1860s in Western Australia, the very next year was the year children started to be exported in large numbers. There was a labour part, but it’s very significant. It’s not an uncommon British practice to clear kids out for a variety of reasons.”
“You can see it clearly in the Northern Territory where the girls were being removed in order to be house girls, domestic servants; the boys were being removed to be cattle workers.”
Like Littlechild, Read believes there needs to be a deeper understanding of the connection between the colonial past and the Stolen Generations.
In Australia, as in Canada, what happened to the Stolen Generations is now included in the history books and school curriculum, rolling back an ignorance that has hidden the impact on indigenous people.
“That’s the big breakthrough as I look back now. So much of our terrible Aboriginal history is still argued about. But the Stolen Generations has made it to the national consciousness, the national imagination, and most importantly the national curriculum. Basically, it’s like the First World War - it’s part of our curriculum, it’s part of our history. Even the federal government doesn’t argue anymore that it shouldn’t be on the curriculum.”
New Zealand is only now starting to officially recognise the Land Wars of the 1860s, with moves for a national commemoration after a petition by school girls.
But recognising that the removal of children and their abuse in state institutions might be part of the same narrative is a long way off. The subject of abuse in state welfare institutions has only recently gained renewed public attention in the media. But the prevalence of Maori in these institutions is treated as a peripheral issue, even though the majority of children who went through them were Maori. But it isn’t peripheral for those who go through it.
Read says recent immigrants to Australia from volatile parts of the world can be dismissive of indigenous rights.
“If you talk to a lot of non-Anglo Australians they’ll say, ‘we’ve been invaded 12 times, what’s wrong with you, get on with your lives’. But I think almost everyone agrees that it’s not right to have your children taken off you for an ideological reason. On that one, everyone can agree.”
In fact, everyone has agreed. Formally. The UN definition of genocide includes acts intended to destroy a group. One of those acts is described in Article 2e - “Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group”.
Littlechild has worked in various UN forums for 40 years and says countries that grew out of colonisation are extremely reluctant to acknowledge this aspect of the genocide definition because they know they are exposed. He says some people are more comfortable qualifying the term by calling it cultural genocide, but he thinks in some ways this dodges the question.
“Was it or is it genocide? Sometimes the worst situations around the world are taken and we’re told, ‘well yours wasn’t genocide because they didn’t have these outright killings, you weren’t shot to death, butchered’. But in some cases, people argue it’s just as bad, it’s a slower death, a psychological death through these policies, which is still at the end of the day applicable under the definition of genocide. But we’re not quite there yet. I don’t sense personally we’re there yet.”
Tauli-Corpuz says the institutional abuse that indigenous children have suffered contributes to the appalling statistics that bedevil indigenous peoples throughout the world.
“There needs to be a lot more research and analysis done. At least from what I have seen, where children have been systematically taken that is where you see these kinds of results. High youth suicides, disproportionate representation in the jails, even violence against women and children. These are some of the consequences.”
“In colonising countries … indigenous people … were a constant reminder and shame that the colonisation … was not as complete as it was supposed to have been.”
A country in denial
Marks’ account of his time in institutions veers between anger and a brutal humour. At times he falls into silent reflection.
“I’m actually quite happy, as long as these guys are happy,” he says, nodding towards his young son and daughter. “That’s all I care about.”
“These guys have their dreams and aspirations and I’m right behind them. It’s like all my other kids [he has four adult daughters]. That’s my life now.”
He pauses for a moment, looking at his children, before returning to what happened to his own childhood.
“But it’s sad because I’ve never had the answers as to why they done it to me in the first place. I’m 57 this year. It looks like I never, ever will get the answers. The thing that hurts me the most is why they did it at all and then just call us all a bunch of liars and we deserve the life that we had. I’ve seen that written too.”
“And they’re waiting for us to die so they can save the government some money. They just breach every principle, ethically, morally and they don’t take responsibility. We’ve had to take responsibility for everything we do in life.”
“But they don’t. They haven’t.”
Marks turns the issue around and points it back at the state that wrecked his childhood. “I know my story. But I want to hear the state tell its story. I want to hear them give their explanation for what they did to us."
“They’re waiting for us to die so they can save the government some money.”
About the author
Aaron Smale is a freelance journalist based in New Zealand. A feature he wrote for Radio NZ won the best feature in the General category at the Canon Media Awards, the journalism industry’s top national awards. He was also Runner-Up, Feature Writer of the Year. Follow him on Twitter: @ikon_media