High Notes, Vol 17 No 15, May 27 2016
Weights Room Memberships Closed
Sorry Day Assembly 2016
"We gather here today on Gadigal land. The Gadigal clan, people of the Eora nation, occupied an area from South Head to what is now Petersham in the West and Cook’s River in the South. I pay my respects to Gadigal people past and present and to their elders.
"Each year at this time we turn our thoughts towards reconciliation on National Sorry Day, celebrated on 26 May each year. Originally the day commemorated one year since the publication of the Bringing Them Home Report of 1997, which addressed the issue of the ‘Stolen Generations’- the forced removal of aboriginal children from their parents. As a beginning to the reconciliation process the report recommended establishing such a day so that the Australian community would have an opportunity to be involved in activities that acknowledged the impact of the policies of forcible removal on Australia’s indigenous population. On Sunday 29 May 2000, 250,000 people participated in the Corroboree Bridge Walk highlighting the lack of an official apology from the Australian Government to indigenous Australians. Since 2005, the official title for Sorry Day is a National Day of Healing for All Australians. Somehow, it doesn’t sound as appropriate. We should all focus on why we are sorry for what was done by governments in our name.
"As we work through our years of celebration for the centenary of the Great War 1914-18 we should spare a thought for the 1,000 indigenous soldiers who fought for their country. Originally, many aborigines were not allowed to enlist on the grounds of race. By 1917, with voluntary enlistment waning, restrictions were relaxed. For most of the volunteers it was the first time that they had been treated as people serving under the same conditions as white people and being paid 6/- a day. By all accounts aboriginal soldiers were accepted by their fellows without significant prejudice.
"Ironically, they all returned to discrimination and prejudice that was arguably worse than before they left. One veteran was not only denied his pay packet and his pension, but also given back the same rags he was wearing when he volunteered and sent back to work on a station as if the death trenches, mud and shelling had never happened. On their return home indigenous veterans did not see ‘a land fit for heroes to live in’. They were still non-citizens. They still could not vote. Only one was allocated land under the ‘soldier settlement scheme’.
"Given their circumstances why did they serve? Some did so spurred by patriotism and loyalty. Others saw the war as an opportunity to prove they were as good as white soldiers. Some saw the war as just. Some thought serving might help to advance the cause of indigenous rights. Others sought adventure, escape from their living conditions or a paid overseas experience.
"During the war at least a third of all enlisted Aboriginal men died in battle or of their wounds. Significant acts of bravery were acknowledged in the awarding of Distinguished Conduct Medals to Corporal Albert Knight and Private William Irwin. Nonetheless, returning Aboriginal soldiers were denied entry into RSL Clubs and hotels and most went back to their former lives in indigenous communities or on mission stations. In recent times, Pastor Ray Minniecon launched the Coloured Diggers Project to establish and ATSI Honour Board, recording the soldier’s names and tribal groups. Its title is a telling pun: ‘The Best we Forgot’.
"The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commemorative Ceremony is held each ANZAC Day at Mount Ainslie in Canberra to honour all indigenous Australians who served in the Australian forces since 1901. It is hosted by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Veterans and Services Association (ATSIVA). It is a positive contribution to the story of our nation for indigenous soldiers to be honoured. There is also a push to recognise the sacrifice of the estimated 30,000 aborigines who died during the Frontier Wars which were fought for one hundred years. They included: Hawkesbury/Nepean 1790-1816; Black Wars 1803-1830 Tasmania; Port Phillip District 1830-1850; Kalkadoon Wars 1870-1980 (Queensland) and the Western Australian Conflict 1890-1898. The invasion narrative in Australia is not given the prominence it deserves in explaining how Australia has evolved.
"During our National Reconciliation Week (27/5-3/6) we turn our thoughts to the concept of reconciliation and to how we can move forward as a society by acknowledging past wrongs and setting a better framework for relationships with the indigenous community in the future. Respectful relationships are what we all seek. So, on this National Sorry Day, I want to say ‘sorry’ to the indigenous Australians who served in the frontier wars and in the nation’s wars since the Boer War. Their struggle, service and sacrifice have not been honoured appropriately and commitments made were not kept after their homecoming. I say sorry also to the descendants of these veterans. It is easy to empathise with their understandable sense of injustice and betrayal.
"For healing to progress we have to demonstrate as a society that we acknowledge our historical
transgressions, that we reject racial discrimination, that we are serious about building
respectful relationships and that we honour the contributions of all our citizens. Each year at
the end of May we should pause to reflect on the cost of our nation building –
dispossession of tribal lands – and of our racism – shameful treatment of a proud but
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