TALKING on the phone to Murri Ministry’s Ravina Waldren last week on the eve of the historic Federal Government apology to the Stolen Generations, made it easier to grasp the symbolism of the event.
“It’s quite courageous and essential that the country’s leader is addressing an apology to the first people of the land as a major step towards righting the wrongs of the past,” Ravina, the co-ordinator of the Brisbane archdiocesan-based Catholic ministry said.
Then added: “My grandmother, one of the Draper mob, was from the Stolen Generations too.”
So grasping that part was easy.
What was not so easy was sitting the next morning with a group of indigenous people at the ministry’s headquarters at Justice Place, Woolloongabba, watching Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s televised apology.
Meeting these people brought home forcefully to me Mr Rudd’s passionate and certainly heartfelt words that “the Stolen Generations are not intellectual curiosities – they are human beings who have been damaged deeply by the decisions of governments and parliament”.
When Murri Ministry chairperson David Miller spoke about the tears he had shed before coming to the breakfast, the matter became real and personal for me.
And seeing Estelle Sandow, one of the indigenous people invited to the breakfast, it became gut-wrenchingly real and personal.
Strewn in front of her were photos of her ancestors’ children, taken from them under government policies at the time.
Her tears were real, as were the crumpled pages of her biro-marked attempts to track the genealogies of these family members.
There’d been books written about her and her family – though not the sort of books that most of us would like to be in.
“My grandparents were on the cover of a book, The Dumping Ground, by Pastor Thom Blake,” Estelle said.
“They wrote about me in a book, Dormitory Girl, about life at Cherbourg,” she said.
Estelle looked back to the photographs in front of her.
“But today isn’t about me.
“It’s particularly about my great great grandmother and the eight children she had taken from her; and my great grandmother and the two children she lost – that’s why I’m crying hearing this apology.”
David and Estelle’s stories were just two of what must have been thousands retold on the historic Parliamentary day – February 13, 2008.
For Murri Ministry’s Ravina Waldren and Josephite Sister Kay McPadden and Brisbane archdiocese’s Catholic Justice and Peace Commission (CJPC) executive officer Peter Arndt the event was also significant.
For years they had been amongst a group of Brisbane people working towards such a day.
Posters and other items at Justice Place gave a sense of the journey.
There was the signed apology from Church organisations based at Justice Place – that was in 1998 the year after the Bringing Them Home Report and the year that National Sorry Day was inaugurated.
Then there was the Sea of Hands photo, symbolising reconciliation, taken outside St Stephen’s Cathedral in April, 2000.
And a banner below the television set in the Justice Place meeting room summed up the determination and dedication that had driven the Church groups:
“Endurance brings with it patience. Patience helps you to find the way ahead and gives you courage for the journey.”
The breakfast celebrated the fruits of this endurance.
Peter said that, in 2005, the CJPC had decided that reconciliation and indigenous justice would be the body’s principal priority, which in turn had led to the creation of an indigenous advisory group – yet another step on a long journey.
So Peter had organised the breakfast on behalf of the CJPC and invited the Murri Ministry staff, who then contacted indigenous people from the wider community.
“It’s taken a long time for one of the key recommendations of 1997’s Bringing Them Home Report – a national apology to those indigenous people affected – to be carried out,” he said.
“After planning and talking about it for so long, it seems a bit unreal to see the apology has finally happened.
“Now it’s happened, like others closely involved I’ll be saying: It’s all well and good but it’s got to be backed up by reparations to those affected by the government policies of separation, and programs to address injustices and inequities in areas like health, housing and education.
“Nevertheless it’s a promising start. It’s good to see follow-up practical programs mentioned in the PM’s speech.”
Sr Kay, who has been involved with indigenous pastoral care for 30 years, said she was always struck by how forgiving the Aboriginal people were.
This certainly came out in my talk with David Miller and Estelle Sandow.
“It’s been a very significant day,” David said. “And very sad. I had a few tears before I got to the breakfast.
“My people were from the Gungalu tribe in Dawson Valley out west of Rockhampton near Mount Morgan.
“My grandmother Sarah Toby was a full blood. My mother Emily Miller was born in Banana in 1910. She was tagged a half-cast and removed from her family.
“Mum was sent out to work at age 11 on a cattle station; her sister being really black was sent to Cherbourg, then known as Barambah.
“We didn’t hear much about the removals. In those days older people didn’t speak about it; I found out through relations.”
David and Estelle felt, to varying degrees, the Prime Minister’s speech had hit the mark.
“I felt Kevin Rudd’s speech was very genuine. He’d dug deep into the issue to get the facts,” David said.
“But, it’s no good if it just turns into a token sorry day and nothing else.
“It’s time for indigenous and non-indigenous Australians to move forward with this new good will and tackle the problems.”
As for Estelle, she supposed the apology would make a difference “in a way”.
“I’ve had a lot of anger in me about the way my people were treated and hearing something like this helps.”
She explained that her emotions were raw from recent contact with relatives seeking a link with their father’s roots.
“They were Victor’s children.
“He was my grandmother’s brother. Her name was Martha Sandow.
“Their mother Cissie and her seven other brothers and sisters were all taken from their mother, my great great grandmother – her name was Mary Sunflower, whose surname was later changed to Mitchell.
“The children were sent to places like Nambour and Taroom and Hervey Bay, and some of the boys had their surnames changed.
“Then my great grandmother Cissie had both her children taken from her while she was living near Woodford at a place called Durdumdur – Martha then Victor.
“It happened around 1904 when my great grandmother was being moved to Cherbourg as part of the resettlement we call the Great Walk.
“She was told she couldn’t take Victor because he had fair skin and blonde hair. Victor was taken by some missionaries to Victoria where he eventually had his surname changed to Parsons.
“Years later my great grandmother used to sit at a window just looking out.
“Some family members would say: ‘Cissie, what are you doing always looking out the window?’
“One day she said: ‘I’m waiting for my Victor to come back’.
“He eventually did in 1955, but by then she had been dead for three years.
“It’s not easy having to tell his children all this.”