Sorry Day 2016: Saying sorry is nowhere near enough

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On Sorry Day 2016, David Donovan recollects growing up in the bush and becoming aware of the struggle and pain of Indigenous Australians — and his unwitting part in it.

TODAY IS SORRY DAY and so, as a non-Indigenous Australian, I would like to say sorry to the original inhabitants of this land — not just to the Stolen Generations, but all First Nations people. I recognise the part that I and my forebears have played in your dispossession and distress. I feel your pain and heartache, and anger. And I recognise that saying sorry is not nearly satisfactory or anywhere near enough.

Let me explain why I feel this way.

I come from the bush and lived around Indigenous Australians for much of the early part of my life. I was born in 1970 in Rockhampton and grew up on a cattle property north of Dingo, located about 100 miles – as the crow flies – due west of Rockhampton in Central Queensland. My father, about whom I have written in the past, spoke so glowingly about Australia's First People in his stories, from his time in the Kimberleys in Western Australia during the 1950s, that, as I grew up, I naturally felt fondly towards them.

Then, when I started at the very small, 20 student state school near us, I found there was an Indigenous family there. Moreover, that this family were better dressed and far more well-manners than any of the other kids. That little school, called Alsace, also played school sports carnivals against the children up the road at the Woorabinda Aboriginal Community, and everybody always got on fabulously well. Race never seemed to be an issue — at least not as far as I was aware. The fact is, I had nothing but good thoughts about Indigenous people as a child. It stands to reason, of course — children are not born bigots.

The road from Duaringa to Woorabinda (Image: author)

There was no high school in Dingo, so in the mid-1980s I was sent away to board at the local Grammar School, which was one of the best schools in the region. Gradually, I became aware of the low-key, casual discrimination towards Indigenous Australians that existed within that community. There were few dark-skinned children at this school, and the ones that were all seemed to come from Papua New Guinea. Whether it was a policy of the school, or whether they just couldn’t afford the tuition, First Australians were simply not a part of this elite school’s make-up. In retrospect, it seems obvious to me that some sort of programme should have been in place to redress this imbalance.

In the City of Rockhampton there did not seem to be many jobs for Indigenous Australians in the 1980s. You would not see them serving in shops or restaurants, or working in the streets. Instead, many appeared to be homeless, or living in squalid conditions. In the main, people did not publicly discriminate against Indigenous people, this was accepted to be unacceptable behaviour even in the 1980s. But often, quietly, in private, you would hear otherwise respectable people privately describing Indigenous people as dishonest, unreliable, lazy, dirty, smelly, or stupid. Normally, they wouldn't call them Aboriginals or Indigenous either, but rather “abos” or even occasionally some form of derogatory racial epithet more often associated with the American Deep South. And like the Deep South, Rockhampton had an informal segregation policy – enforced by the hoteliers themselves – of “white” and “black” pubs.

After school, but before going to university, I did a week of work experience at a Rockhampton law firm. One morning the partner told me was to attend the Magistrates Court and observe the cases there, just for my general edification. That morning, a depressing 95 per cent of the accused persons fronting the magistrate were Indigenous Australians. Most were in a dishevelled state and almost all were on minor charges stemming from alcohol abuse — such as public drunkenness, disturbing the peace, public nuisance, vandalism or minor assaults. Many seemed disoriented and some were angry and incoherent, yelling at the magistrate. But when you looked into their eyes, you could see the hollow despair. The absence of hope.

One of the longest novels ever written in the English language, Poor Fellow My Country

After the week was over, back at the family property, I began to read Xavier Herbert’s Miles Franklin Award winning masterpiece Poor Fellow My Country, which he dedicated

“To my poor destructed country."

I read of the story of the white man’s treatment of the First Australian’s since colonisation: the casual callousness, the inhumane conditions, their categorisation as sub-human or non-human, the stealing of their children, the expectation or even desire for them to die out or be subsumed, the dispossession of their land, the diminishment and destruction of their culture, their widespread murder and genocide; a shocking tale of woe. The book, like my father’s stories, struck a chord with me so much, my son is named Xavier.

On the property, we had caves that contained Indigenous art, and we would stumble across artefacts now and again, but no First Australianse ever roamed our property in those days. Dad did go out of his way, it must be said, to employ Indigenous fencers, though I recall they usually treated him – to his intense discomfort – with cringing subservience. I gradually became aware that, even with good intentions, our family itself had played a part in the alienation of Indigenous people from their heritage and sacred land and left them with next to nothing in return.

Into the present day, whilst I know the battle at home for Indigenous Australians to gain recognition and respect has been a long and tortuous one, I am now filled with more hope. The First Australians I saw in the courthouse that day in 1987 – the ones whom the townsfolk looked down upon and would never employ – are fewer in number these days. There are fewer now, I hope, who live without hope.

Today is Sorry Day, but saying "sorry" is not enough. We must properly recognise the First Australians in our Constitution — Australia’s most important document. We must reach a Treaty and accomodation with the original inhabitants of this land. We must embrace the spirituality and culture of the land, as practiced by the true custodians and make it a vital part of a genuine Australian culture — not some European import, clumsily grafted onto this ancient land.

The Indigenous peoples of Australia have, since white people arrived on Australia’s shores, struggled to achieve fair treatment, compassion and equality. It is a struggle that is far from over. Saying sorry is a good start, but it is 60,000 years, or more, from being enough.

You can follow David Donovan on Twitter @davrosz

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