Sorry Day and the Stolen Generations

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The first National Sorry Day was held on 26 May 1998 – one year after the tabling of the report Bringing them Home, May 1997. The report was the result of an inquiry by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission into the removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families.

The public and political debate about the removal of children was marked by intense political activity since the mid-to-late 1980s. In 1992 Prime Minister Keating acknowledged that ‘we took the children from their mothers’ at a speech in Redfern. In 1994 legal action was commenced in the Supreme Court of New South Wales. These children who were removed (PDF, 45 KB) came to be known as the Stolen Generations.

Documentation of forced removal of children

The Bringing them Home report acknowledged that ‘Indigenous children have been forcibly separated from their families and communities since the very first days of the European occupation of Australia’ by governments and missionaries.

Their motives were to `inculcate European values and work habits in children, who would then be employed in service to the colonial settlers’ (Ramsland 1986 quoted by Mason 1993, p.31). In 1814 Governor Macquarie funded the first school for Aboriginal children. Its novelty was an initial attraction for Indigenous families but within a few years it evoked a hostile response when it became apparent that its purpose was to distance the children from their families and communities. (Bringing them Home – The Report, National Overview)

By the late 1800s there were systematic removal practices being implemented through a range of assimilation and ‘protection policies’.

In Victoria, the Aborigines Protection Act 1869, the Aborigines Protection Board was given quite broad powers to the Board to make laws for ‘the care, custody and education of the children of Aborigines’. One of the regulations made under the Act allowed for ‘the removal of any Aboriginal child neglected by its parents or left unprotected’. They were removed to a mission, an industrial or reform school, or a station.

In Queensland and Western Australia, the Chief Protector was able to enforce protection polices to the effect that Indigenous people could be removed into large, highly regulated government settlements and missions. Children were removed from their mothers at about the age of four years and placed in dormitories away from their families. At about the age of 14 years, the children were sent off the missions and settlements to work.

In contrast, in Tasmania which had no specific race policies for Indigenous children, Indigenous families living on and near Cape Barren Island were left relatively undisturbed until the 1930s. However, child welfare legislation was then used to remove Indigenous children from the islands. The children were sent to non-Indigenous institutions and later non-Indigenous foster families on the ground that they were neglected.

Assimilation practices

After a 1937 national conference, at which the assimilation policy was adopted, all States began adopting policies designed to ‘assimilate’ Indigenous people of mixed descent. Assimilation was ‘a highly intensive process necessitating constant surveillance of people’s lives’. New legislation was introduced almost everywhere by 1940.

In New South Wales, after 1940, the removal of Indigenous children was governed by the general child welfare law although Indigenous children were treated differently from non-Indigenous children, once they were removed to institutions, such as Kinchela and Cootamundra Girls Home.

The boys were called ‘inmates’ in many of the official reports of the time. When they arrived at the [Kinchela] home, their heads were shaved, any meagre possessions were taken away and they were officially referred to by number. Many of them suffered abuse.

During the 1950s and 1960s, great numbers of Indigenous children were removed from their families in the name of assimilation. ‘Not only were they removed for alleged neglect, they were removed to attend school in distant places, to receive medical treatment and to be adopted out at birth.’

By the early 1960s it was clear that despite the formal assimilation policy, Indigenous people were not being assimilated. This was considered to be due in part both to the discrimination by non-Indigenous people and also the refusal of Indigenous people to surrender their lifestyle and culture. Consequently the definition of assimilation was amended at the 1965 Native Welfare Conference to include an element of choice.


By the 1980s, governments’ social welfare practices were seen to discriminate against Indigenous people by welfare and community groups. This forced a reappraisal of removal and placement practice during the 1980s. In 1980 the family tracing and reunion agency Link-Up (NSW) Aboriginal Corporation was established. Similar services now exist in all States and the Northern Territory.

As to the number or proportion of Indigenous people removed from their families, precise figures are difficult to establish. However, the report concluded that between one in three and one in ten Indigenous children were forcibly removed from their families and communities in the period from approximately 1910 until 1970….In that time not one Indigenous family has escaped the effects of forcible removal.’

Consequences of separation

A key consequence was the experience of the ‘totality of the separation’ experienced by the overwhelming majority of the children forcibly removed under assimilationist legislation and policies. Other stated consequences include the ongoing crisis in Indigenous health, based on the generations of neglect, and lack cohesive public policy.

Indigenous children were not only separated from their family but also their community and culture. They were not permitted to use their languages in the missions – a practice continuing until the 1960s in the Kimberley. Contact with family members was at best limited and strictly controlled through censorship and destruction of correspondence. Archie Roach wrote about the experience in his song They took the children away.

Living conditions in children’s institutions were often very harsh. Doris Pilkington described the conditions as ‘more like a concentration camp than a residential school for Aboriginal children’ (Pilkington 1996 page 72).

Young men and women constantly ran away (this was in breach of the Aborigines Act ). Not only were they separated from their families and relatives, but they were regimented and locked up like caged animals, locked in their dormitory after supper for the night. They were given severe punishments, including solitary confinements for minor misdeeds (Choo 1989 page 46).

Children were vulnerable to sexual abuse and exploitation.

One in ten girls allege they were sexually abused in a work placement organised by the Protection Board or institution. Other exploitation was known and condemned, but not prevented. By 1940 the NSW Board’s record with respect to Aboriginal girls placed in service was well-known and even condemned in Parliament … Chief Protectors, Protection and Welfare Boards and State welfare officers frequently failed to protect their charges from abuse in placements they had organised.

Witnesses to the Inquiry removed to missions and institutions told of receiving little or no education, and certainly little of any value. Although Aboriginal children were expected to work at a very young age, they were not trusted with their own wages. In NSW and Queensland, regulations meant that they were only entitled to retain a small proportion of their meagre earnings as pocket money.

In each State and Territory, with the exception of the ACT, specific government support and funding is made available for specialised assistance to Indigenous people seeking family information and reunion support, especially through Link-Up.

Reunion is recognised as being important but also very difficult because of the way in which the removal policies were administered. Between 1980 and 1994 Link-Up (NSW) Aboriginal Corporation reunited more than 1,000 individuals.
Report recommendations

One of the recommendations of the report was that a National Sorry Day should be declared. Sorry Day offered the community the opportunity to be involved in activities to acknowledge the impact of the policies of forcible removal on Australia’s indigenous populations.
Sorry Day 1998

A huge range of community activities took place across Australia on Sorry Day in 1998. Sorry Books, in which people could record their personal feelings, were presented to representatives of the Indigenous communities. Hundreds of thousands of signatures were received. People could also register an apology electronically. You can view the 24,763 apologies to Australia’s indigenous people made at Apology Australia.

On Sunday 28th May 2000 more than 250,000 people participated in the Corroboree 2000 Bridge Walk across Sydney Harbour Bridge. This walk was in support of Indigenous Australians and was organised by the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation (now known as Reconciliation Australia), a Federal Government initiative to promote greater understanding between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. The event highlighted the issue of a lack of an apology by the Commonwealth Government to the Stolen Generations.

Sorry Day is an annual event, with marches, speeches and presentations being held through the country.

In 2005 the National Sorry Day Committee renamed Sorry Day as a National Day of Healing for all Australians: ‘The Day will focus on the healing needed throughout Australian society if we are to achieve reconciliation’ (Extract from the National Sorry Day Council Archives: Senator Aden Ridgeway, National Day of Healing Launch, Great Hall Parliament House, Canberra, Wednesday 25 May 2005).

Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence was first published in 1996, and was released internationally in 2002 as the film ‘Rabbit-Proof Fence’. The novel has now been translated into 11 languages worldwide.

In 2006, Doris published Home to Mother, a children’s version of her own mother’s courageous 1600 km journey on foot from the Moore River Native Settlement to Jigalong. In the same year, she was awarded an Order of Australia for service to the arts in Indigenous literature. Doris Pilkington Garimara AM is the recipient of the 2008 Australia Council Red Ochre Award.

The Bringing them Home report also had a huge impact on Australian cultural expression, especially film. The widely successful film Rabbit Proof Fence (Noyce 2002) was based on the true story (Follow the Rabbit Proof Fence, mentioned above) of Molly Craig and her sisters’ escape after being forcibly taken from their family to a far away Native Settlement.

Rabbit Proof Fence lays bare Australia’s racist past, but more than that, it communicates to its audience an Indigenous notion of country and deep connections the land, so deep Molly (Everlyn Sampi) becomes sick when moved.

The experience of the Stolen Generations is also explored in Radiance (Perkins 1998). The film tells the story of three sisters (although we later find two are mother and daughter) coming together after their mother’s death. Two were taken from their mother as children and they all share memories of being hidden from/taken by authorities.

There have also been a number of documentaries about the experience of the Stolen Generations.

In Cry from the Heart (Kendell 1999), Chris Edwards-Haines reveals his experience as a member of the Stolen Generations (see Christopher Edwards-Haines, biographic story on his artwork).

Land Of The Little Kings (Kootji Rayond 2000) also explores the impact of the forced removal of Indigenous children from their families, with iconic singer/song writer, Archie Roach travelling around Australia listening to stories told by members of the Stolen Generations.

These documentaries and other Indigenous films were broadcast as part of Unfinished Business: Reconciling the Nation by SBS in the year 2000.
The Apology to the Stolen Generations, 2008
Ainslie Primary School students

On the 13th of February 2008, more than ten years after the Bringing Them Home Report was tabled, the Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, tabled a motion in parliament apologising to Australia’s Indigenous peoples, particularly the Stolen Generations and their families and communities, for laws and policies which had ‘inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians.’

Individual stories like that of Nanna Nungala Fejo were shared with all Australians. At schools, like Rozelle Public School, individuals such as Noel Tovey stood before 390 students and shared his story.

The apology included a proposal for a policy commission to close the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians in ‘life expectancy, educational achievement and economic opportunity.’

The 2008 Bangarra Dance Theatre production Mathinna evokes the tragedy, confusion and intolerance experienced by members of the Stolen Generations.

The production is inspired by the true story of a young girl’s experience as a Stolen Child and her journey between two cultures. As a young girl, Mary was adopted by Governor John Franklin and his wife and was renamed Mathinna. Mathinna was removed from her traditional life, only to be left in an Orphan School when her adoptive parents returned to England. At sixteen Mathinna left the School to rejoin her people at an Aboriginal station at Oyster Cove, south of Hobart.

Mathinna was produced by the Bangarra Dance Theatre Artistic Director and recent NSW Australian of the Year award recipient, Stephen Page.