Tears and emotions remembered 10 years on from national apology to stolen generations

Tears and emotions remembered 10 years on from national apology to stolen generations

Ten years may be a lifetime in politics, but for many indigenous Australians, 2008's national apology to the stolen generations feels like yesterday.

Harry Williams was just 15 when he stood in the hall of Parliament House in Canberra, and watched then prime minister Kevin Rudd deliver the country's apology as emotions ran high all around him.

"It was overwhelming": Harry Williams at Parliament House.

"It was overwhelming": Harry Williams at Parliament House.

Photo: Dion Georgopoulos

"People were crying, some people were angry - it was overwhelming at the time," he said.

"I didn't really understand exactly what was going on, but I did really."

Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists headlined the Apology10 concert including Shellie Morris and Archie Roach (pictured).

Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists headlined the Apology10 concert including Shellie Morris and Archie Roach (pictured).

Photo: karleen minney

Now 25, Mr Williams is passionate about educating Australians about indigenous history, and says change in the country's relationship with its first peoples had to come from within.

"For a community to make any kind of good, strong progress, the solutions need to come from the grassroots, from our elders. That's where the knowledge is," he said.

As a Wiradjuri man, he said his greatest inspiration in life had been his late grandfather, a member of the stolen generations who spent time in several homes as a child.

He grew up hearing these stories, and wishing more people could understand his history.

Indigenous artist Archie Roach.

Indigenous artist Archie Roach.

Photo: karleen minney

"Imagine if every school in Australia was taught specifically about aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures, learning about our ways of life, our laws, our stories," he said.

"If everyone had that shared understanding, I think we could build better relationships between black and white Australia to really move forward."

The anniversary coincides with a damning report, issued last week, on the progress of the Federal Government's Closing the Gap policy, which found that only three of the seven targets outlined in the policy had seen improvement in the last decade.

In a Legislative Assembly speech on Tuesday, ACT Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs Rachel Stephen-Smith said there was still work to be done.

"Saying sorry is one thing, but actually making change is another. This is the unfinished business of the apology," she said.

Chief executive of Canberra-based aboriginal health service Winnunga Nimmityjah, Julie Tongs, said progress over the last 10 years had been disappointing, but that there was still time to "reset the agenda".

"There needs to be a couple of new targets, I think, to include the removal of aboriginal children now, because it's worse now than when we had the [1997] Bringing Them Home report," she said.

"Also incarceration - these are big issues that we need to address, but for me, health underpins everything, health and housing.

"The makeup of Canberra is that everything is geared towards computers and mobile phones and transport. There's a lot of people in Canberra that don't have any of these things.

"If we can't get it right in Canberra, what hope has the rest of the country got?"

Indigenous singer-songwriter Archie Roach, himself a member of the stolen generations, was more philosophical about the lack of progress at government level.

He says the national apology was a "monumental occasion", when he performed at Federation Square in Melbourne surrounded by emotion.

Preparing to perform another concert to mark the 10-year anniversary in Canberra on Tuesday, he reflected on hearing the apology from the perspective of someone who never learned what happened to many of his family members.

"Me and most of my siblings were removed from family," he said.

"I was just three when I was taken away, so just a little fella, but I remember the homes and the Salvation Army place we were sent to, and I was in three foster homes."

He said 10 years wasn't a long time when it came to national policy.

"The government's always slow to do anything, really," he said.

"We need to continue to try and find ways to close that gap as well, ourselves. We can't always rely on government to fix things up, otherwise we'd be waiting forever, I think."

Sally Pryor

Sally Pryor is a reporter at The Canberra Times.

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