Australia`s stolen generation still looks to Canada

Jun 13th, 2008 | By | Category: Countries of the World

On June 11, 2008 Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper offered a formal “apology to former students of Indian residential schools.” And when you factor the $1.9 billion compensation fund in Canada’s Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement of 2006 into the picture, Mr. Harper’s ostensibly right-wing government has made the ostensibly left-wing Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd look mean-spirited.

Back in February this year the newly elected Prime Minister Rudd delivered an apology similar in sentiment to Mr. Harper’s this week, to indigenous peoples who were similarly removed from their families and communities last century by governments and churches – known as Australia’s “Stolen Generation.” But Mr Rudd ruled out a national monetary compensation scheme. Instead around 100,000 members of Australia ‘s Stolen Generation still have to litigate in the courts to gain compensation, or rely on the generosity of state ( in Canadian parlance provincial) governments to accord them justice.

Kevin Rudd’s strange half-echoes of John Howard on aboriginal policy

Whatever else might be said about its aboriginal policy, Mr Harper’s government has finally been prepared to offer monetary compensation for the sexual, physical, and psychological abuse that members of Canada’s Stolen Generation suffered (albeit as a result of “the largest class-action settlement in Canadian history” – and as part of a long process that began eight years ago).

Mr Rudd argued that his apology to Australia ‘s Stolen Generation was simply a symbolic gesture. “This is about getting the symbolic covenant, if you like, between indigenous and non-indigenous Australia right and then moving on,” Mr Rudd said on January 29, two weeks before the formal apology ceremony.

“When it comes to future funding commitments from the Government that I lead, it will be about fixing health, fixing schools and fixing communities in a very practical way on the ground, in partnership with local aboriginal leadership,” rather than offering compensation, Mr Rudd added.

Australian Labor Party leader Mr Rudd’s position on compensation here is in line with that adopted by his conservative predecessor John Howard..When the Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission’s landmark 1997 report on the Stolen Generations was published, Mr. Howard ruled out both an official apology and monetary compensation.

Aboriginal issues in Australian courts and state governments

As a result of Mr Howard’s and now Mr Rudd’s refusal to head down what has become the Canadian compensation path, individual aboriginal Australians still have to launch complex and lengthy litigation in the courts, to be compensated for the hardships they have and still do suffer, as a result of a policy of assimilation which had the same objective in Australia as in Canada – to effectively wipe out the aboriginal cultures and contributions of both places forever.

The first Stolen Generation case to be heard in Australia’s courts was decided in 2000. But the claimants, Lorna Cubillo and Peter Gunner, who were removed from their families in the Northern Territory in the 1940s and the 1950s and placed with church missions, were unsuccessful – for a range of reasons, including the time elapsed since the events took place.

Not until last year did a member of Australia ‘s Stolen Generation win a case in the courts for compensation. 50-year-old South Australian Bruce Trevorrow was awarded over half a million dollars by that State’s courts, because, as a 13-month-old baby suffering from gastric illness, he was taken from his mother to a hospital, and then placed in state care until his mother found him again, when he was 10 years old.

For 100,000 or so other Stolen Generation members there are very limited avenues for compensation available. Only one state government, on the small island of Tasmania, has established a Stolen Generation Compensation fund for 84 individuals – victims of earlier particular Tasmanian assimilation policies. Some churches have also made available limited funds, for those aboriginal people who were removed from their homes by missionaries and church welfare agencies.

A national compensation fund in Australia too?

Calls by aboriginal leaders in Australia for Prime Minister Rudd to establish a national compensation fund of $1 billion have so far fallen on deaf ears. As recently as last month he again refused to acknowledge the need for any such action.

Perhaps the decisions of Canadian Prime Minister Harper, and those aboriginal and other community and government leaders who have helped develop Canada’s Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, will ultimately make Mr Rudd think again. For the time being however, it is hard to escape the impression that while Canada today is finally giving its former students of Indian residential schools more than rhetoric and a heartfelt apology, Australia is still making its Stolen Generation plead their case for real justice in the courts. Even under the ostensibly rather different governments of Stephen Harper and Kevin Rudd.

Australian lawyer and policy consultant Greg Barns was a political adviser to the Howard government from 1996 to 1999 and is a regular commentator in Canada on Australian politics.

His Canadian appearances include CBC Radio and the Toronto Globe and Mail. He also comments on Australian politics in Australia and other parts of the global village, in such publications as the Melbourne Age and the South China Morning Post.

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