The unfinished business of Sorry Day


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Above: Hope for the future, children from the Sadadeen Primary School Choir singing at the Sorry Day commemorations. 

The trauma of forced separation for Indigenous children and their families was remembered at the Alice Springs Sorry Day gathering last Friday on the Flynn Church lawns.  The occasion also marked the 20th anniversary of the Bringing Them Home Report on Australia’s Stolen Generations.
William Tilmouth, speaking to the gathering,  recalled the apology to Indigenous peoples made by then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd on behalf of the nation in February 2008, which was “especially for the removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families, their communities and their country”.
p2445 Sorry Tilmouth 330The apology was “a first step”, as Mr Rudd himself said. Indigenous people are still waiting for the second step, said Mr Tilmouth (at right), which is to have a say in the control of their own affairs.
Out at Uluru much the same message was being heard from the First Nations Constitutional Convention, which called for “the establishment of a First Nations Voice enshrined in the Constitution”.
Mr Tilmouth also decried the advent of a new Stolen Generation with steeply rising rates of removal of Indigenous children from their families. The current hearings by the Northern Territory Royal Commission, focusing on the child protection system, may reveal a clearer picture of this situation, but the stories told last Friday were stark reminders of the ruthless system of the past.
Ten people from Pat Ansell-Dodds’ family were removed across the decades.
Her father was put in a home at the back of Stuart Arms before being put to work on a cattle station.
Her mother was caught near Ryan’s Well (near Aileron), tied to a tree by a policeman when her father was out mustering. Her grandmother was grabbed as well and they were both brought into town to the Telegraph Station. Their family tried to get them back but without success.
p2445 Sorry Ansell-Dodds 230Her mother’s sisters were put in a Catholic Church mission; two ended up on Melville Island and were not allowed to stay in touch with their family.
“It affected them and the whole family,” said Mrs Ansell-Dodds (at left).
Her uncles were also taken – Ted Carter, George Hillman and Jimmy Carter.
An aunty, Norma Nicker, was put in The Bungalow, then taken to St Mary’s before ending up in New South Wales: she never really came home, she didn’t know who she was or that she’d been taken there by government, she thought her family didn’t want her. Then when she was a young woman she had her daughter taken from her.
Mrs Ansell-Dodds herself and her sister were taken in the early ‘50s to St Mary’s where they spent a couple of years, until their parents managed to get them back. Her father had worked for years for the town council and he and her mother challenged the removal in court: “They said they was quite capable of looking after me and my sister.”
Much of this family history Mrs Ansell-Dodds found through research in the archives when she was doing her Bachelor of Arts degree.
“People think they know you, but they don’t know your full story,” she said.
p2445 Sorry Furber & Brand 430Margaret Furber was taken from Gap Cottages when she was eight years old. She was living there with her grandparents while her parents were away working. Her grandmother came home from work and found she was gone.
At right: Margaret Furber, Tracey Brand in the background. 
Her brother (Harold) and sister were taken too, far away to Croker Island. The family were not told where they were going.
On the island brother and sister were separated, and eventually this sister was taken for adoption in Queensland.
Much later, the siblings found out that another sister had been taken straight from the hospital, and adopted by a white family down south. She wasn’t told anything about her background until her adoptive mother was dying.
Some belated comfort for the Furber siblings came with a “fantastic” family reunion and smoking ceremony a few years back, assisted by Link-Up.
p2445 Sorry Del Byrne 230The gathering also heard from the granddaughter of Frank Byrne, Delphina (at left), who read a passage from his autobiographical account, Living in Hope, launched at the recent NT Writers Festival. He was living happily with his mother and stepfather on Christmas Creek Station in the Kimberley when he was taken at the age of six. What happened is harrowing. No explanation, no preparation: this little boy was held back physically as he saw his parents loaded up onto a truck and driven away.
We didn’t hear about it on Friday but in the short account (the first three chapters of a longer book in the making) Mr Byrne goes on to tell us that he was then turned out into a paddock “just like a poddy calf” and left to fend for himself. “I think I went mad,” he writes. The only help he received came from other removed children like him and, thankfully, a few Aboriginal families camped there who did their best to take care of them.
MC for the occasion, Tracey Brand spoke of the importance of greater awareness by the wider community of the unresolved trauma of forced separations. These personal stories drove the message home.

Below: Seven-week-old Gabrielle Stuart in the arms of her aunty, Melinda Hooper, and the ‘hands ‘ representing families affected by forced removals. Bottom: A smoking ceremony to calm, cleanse and heal was offered to the gathering by women from Akeyulerre Inc. 

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  1. I have no doubt at all that many children are being removed from families and will become a “stolen generation” if we must put a label on it.
    To me, this is inevitable in today’s Australia. I speak of all children, not just Indigenous. In the major cities children are regularly removed from families and when one looks at the circumstances the child was “living in” mostly you could not disagree that the home they had was less than suitable.
    These kids are regularly abused, abandoned and worse by people not fit to care for an egg.
    Clearly, the children are not safe in those environments. Drugs and alcohol would be the things people blame for this but the truth is that parents make decisions to use those substances and care not for their kids until afterwards, if at all.
    Having seen how many Indigenous children were treated by their families years ago I cannot condemn them to remaining at home with parents who abuse and neglect them.
    My mother was one who took some of these kids in at times to give the family some relief. That was through the CWA. So it’s a problem that has been around as long as people have had children and it is NOT unique to any race or religion etc. It is common to all humans.
    There are many of us who will criticise this sort of action, removing children, but what options do those kids have?
    Stay and be destroyed or removed and maybe still destroyed. Foster families do not have a good record of giving adopted kids a good life. I lived next door to one such family and the children they gave a home to were always suffering. We heard it often as kids ourselves.
    As I see it nothing has changed for children through the ages. Sorry can never make up for what they suffer and lose.
    Can I say to Mr Tilmouth that the parents of these pending stolen children are the problem and always will be.
    “Indigenous people are still waiting for the second step,” said Mr Tilmouth, “which is to have a say in the control of their own affairs.”
    I advise Mr Tilmouth that waiting to be given what he wants is a losing strategy. Most groups that have success in getting what they want must take what they want. Or, at least create it first.
    Making speeches and writing letters will never achieve what he seems to want. Indigenous people in this country have been given many chances to have “a say in the control of their affairs”. Just look at ATSIC. How much was given through that authority and where did the control go?
    Certainly not to the whole people, just those running the show. C’est la vie, Mr Tilmouth. Don’t beg mate, create the control that you want and apply it, government has been waiting for someone to show them what to do. They have no idea as we all have seen over decades.
    The children? How do you change that many parents, Mr Tilmouth? The same goes for all children in this country mate. How are these parents changed? Do we need to issue licenses to be parents? It feels like we need that but it is ridiculous to even suggest it.
    People have children but have no idea what they are doing and resent the commitment afterwards. There must be valid training for those wanting to be parents for them to change.
    I have written this, not as a criticism, but as a way to let people think about why things get so bad. Stop that before it does become so awful. After is never good enough.
    Don’t EVER wait for politicians to act. They won’t.

  2. The “second step” is for Aboriginal peoples to take more pride in their culture.
    Many children were removed from their parents. I remember English kids just “arriving” at my school when I was a kid. Their parents were still in England. From memory this happened up until the late 70s.
    Whilst it is terrible, if the children are at risk they need to be removed.
    The harsh reality is that in a lot of cases the bittersweet is that a lot of these people received a good education and are well respected people and that includes Aboriginal people.

  3. I would like to make contact with Margaret Furber if she would like to contact me.
    Sister Margaret Mary (Eilleen Barrett?) used to bring a group of girls from St John’s Hostel in Alice Springs to visit Melbourne.
    We had a house at Carrum which backed onto the beach and Sister Margaret Mary brought the girls to visit us for the day.
    Dad and Mum (Christopher and Kathie Penhalluriack) had seen an article in the paper about the girls visiting from Alice Springs and invited them to our house.
    For several years some of the girls stayed with us the over Christmas holidays.
    Margaret and I were good friends then, having fun in the sea together.
    I hope Margaret has happy memories of these times. I do!
    I did not know that Margaret had been taken from her parents.
    Hope to hear back! Lauris.

  4. @ Surprised!”The “second step” is for Aboriginal peoples to take more pride in their culture”.
    In order to achieve this it is necessary that their culture – be arts or cooking – be taught in schools. When I look about the school curriculum, I always think of my youth in Africa were the little Gabonese had to learn that their ancestors, the Gauls, lived in wooden huts.


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