The Guardian • Issue #2079

“A shared future of justice”

A timeline

  • The Guardian
  • Issue #2079
First Nations man with didgeridoo.

Photo: Steve Evans – (CC BY-NC 2.0 Deed)


The laws resulting in Aboriginal children being removed from their families traumatised many generations. The children were not only isolated from their families and their country, but were forbidden to speak their language or practice their culture.

Education was very basic or non-existent.

Cruel physical punishments were common.

Children were sexually abused.

Many forced to work never received wages.

Authorities failed to care for and protect the children.

The Stolen Generations resulted in devastation for the community, families, parents, and children. Its effects have been felt by many generations and are still impacting the community today.


In 2000, over 250,000 people joined together and walked across Sydney Harbour Bridge. It was the largest ever human rights demonstration this nation had seen. People from all over Australia, representing trade unions, peace groups, schools, immigrant communities, political parties, and families walked for reconciliation, land rights, justice, in recognition of crimes committed in the past, and as a national apology to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples.

The march followed the handing over of the Statement of Reconciliation at a ceremony at the Opera House.


We, the peoples of Australia, of many origins as we are, make a commitment to go on together in a spirit of reconciliation.

We value the unique status of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples as the original owners and custodians of lands and waters.

We recognise this land and its waters were settled as colonies without treaty or consent.

Reaffirming the human rights of all Australians, we respect and recognise continuing customary laws, beliefs and traditions.

Through understanding the spiritual relationship between the land and its first peoples, we share our future and live in harmony.

Our nation must have the courage to own the truth, to heal the wounds of its past so that we can move on together at peace with ourselves.

Reconciliation must live in the hearts and minds of all Australians. Many steps have been taken, many steps remain as we learn our shared histories.

As we walk the journey of healing, one part of the nation apologises and expresses its sorrow and sincere regret for the injustices of the past, so the other part accepts the apologies and forgives.

We desire a future where all Australians enjoy their rights, accept their responsibilities, and have the opportunity to achieve their full potential.

And so, we pledge ourselves to stop injustice, overcome disadvantage, and respect that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have the right to self-determination within the life of the nation.

Our hope is for a united Australia that respects this land of ours; values the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage; and provides justice and equity for all.


That same year Aboriginal leader Pat Dodson’s delivered the Wentworth Lecture at the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies in Canberra, reprinted below (abridged).

For successive Australian governments, whether colonial, federal, territory or state … our intertwined histories have been about their solutions to us as the problem!

The problem of our being here.

The problem of our disposal!

The problem of our assimilation!

And the problem of having us appreciative of all that governments have done “for our own good.”

For Aboriginal Australians the hope has always been for governments to enter into serious dialogue about our position in the nation and for the Constitution to recognise us as the first Australians, with our Indigenous rights, obligations and responsibilities respected and recognised.

There has never been any agreement about how we might progress this fundamental dilemma. They have been met with obstruction and deferral. The reasons often given have been that the electorate will not support them to do so.

The Day of Mourning and Protest,* like many other gatherings held by Aboriginals since, has always been about rights. Most, if not all, have had little success in achieving lasting security and protection of the rights that we have sought.

Our interests and rights simply just do not count in the context of government ideology and political pragmatism. It has been on very rare occasions that governments have led the community against the contrary view of the polls.

The demands and petitions may have varied in language but never in content and intent. The Harris delegation that met the Western Australian State government in 1928 sought the same rights as the Day of Mourning campaigners.

The people of Noonkenbah and the Pilbara Strikers sought only to protect the rights and responsibilities that they had in the law and the land.

The history has not been told of all the occasions that Aboriginal people throughout Australia have protested or mourned for their stories. Most of these occasions appear to have fallen upon half-hearted or empty responses. Their comfort has come from their fellow Australians who have shared in our pain and disappointment.

No more or no less, the Aboriginal people who have survived the theft of their lands, the removal of their children and the destruction of their law and languages are seeking the guarantee of their rights to live within our law and culture.

To have recognition and respect in the Australian law that has assumed its power over our ancient rights and people. To be able to carry out our laws, customs and traditions through a formal accord recognising our equal status alongside the Australian law.

The government wishes to drive a wedge between [not only] the concepts of rights and welfare, but also between those who advocate a rights agenda and those seek relief from the appalling poverty.

This is an attempt at a new spin on a very old wicket of divide and rule.

This is not our way. With all our social problems the answer is not to attack the foundations of our community by putting the individual before the community.

Aborigines have never wanted to be the same as the white man. What we have sought is to have substantial equality so that as human beings there might be a quality of life that we can enjoy in keeping with our own values and societal ways. Lives for our peoples, similar to that of the majority in Australia, but lives uniquely ours, not ones that governments wished to impose upon us.

Lives where we meet our obligations as citizens but where we are accommodated also as Aborigines. Lives where our human and cultural rights are respected by the governments that have told the world they would respect them.

We have been an affront to the foundational thinking and perceptions that underpins the British mould of Australian institutional principles of society.

The confidence of the nation to celebrate with some pride its achievements is always tempered with the concern that the issues of unfinished business between us would surface and detract from the moment.

This inevitably sends the message to those who observe us, as a nation divided in the one country. It further highlights the inability of a modern democracy to come to grips fairly and respectfully with its Indigenous peoples.

From a cultural position, the only way that the mourning period can be ended is when the proper protocols and practical arrangements have been carried out. When the people who have had a wrong or an injustice done to them have been accommodated by the action of those responsible. Then we can come together as friends and mates.

We have offered on occasions the deepest secrets of our societies to those in highest authority who claimed to be seeking empathy and understanding only to have that encounter and the gift to be diminished, as of no account.

The cross-cultural learning has not happened. Everything about us has to be subject and subordinate to the rules, practices and values of the dominant society.

At the Day of Mourning ceremony after the meeting in 1938, flowers were thrown into the sea as a sign of respect and remembrance of all the Aboriginal people who died since the white man’s arrival.

It was also an expression of the pain, hurt, and frustration that the people had witnessed and experienced in their time and before that. It was also about their underlying fear for their future.

They would give up their sons and daughters to the god of war in a matter of months in defence of a nation that had rejected them. They would go on into the life of the nation with great contributions of citizenship when they had none of the rights that go with being a citizen.

The need to defend our rights for our children and out of the obligations to our people and the land remains.

In common with all other Australians we must have the right to maintain our unique cultural identity without having our entitlements as Australian citizens held hostage to the social imperatives of governments and their leaders unable to comprehend the value of the contribution that we bring to this country as first Australians.

It may well be beyond the imagination of this current Government to grasp the consequences of what the continued denial of the rights of the first Australians will be.

It may be beyond their imagination to grasp the importance in the same way that so many Australians have come to terms with the truth of our past and are seeking to provide a shared future of justice for all our children.

But one thing the leaders of 1938 taught us is that unless we have the courage to persevere and confront the denial and prejudices placed before us, a just future for our children will not be secured.

* The Day of Mourning Protest, on January 26, 1938, was organised by the Aborigines Progressive Association whose leaders met at 148 Elizabeth Street, Sydney. A motion at the meeting said in part: “We, representing the Aborigines of Australia … this being the 150th anniversary of the white man’s seizure of our country, hereby make protest against the callous treatment of our people by the white man during the past 150 years.”

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