2007 – Reconciliation: Truth, Justice and Healing

Reconciliation: Truth, Justice and Healing


Debra Hocking

The Tasmanian Peace Trust 2007 Lecture

Held at the Friends Meeting House, Hobart

Sunday, 14 th October, 2007

Recently my colleague John Bond and I have been in Canada, at the invitation of Phil Fontaine, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations.

I was invited to Canada as the Chair of Tasmania’s Journey of Healing. Last year I was elected Chair of the National Sorry Day Committee. A conflict between two differing approaches led most of the Committee to leave and form the Stolen Generations Alliance, of which I became Chair. John is a writer, and the former Secretary of the National Sorry Day Committee.

Like Australia, Canada removed Indigenous children from their families. They were mainly taken to Residential Schools, run by churches. The policy was not the same as Australia’s. They were not denied knowledge of their families, and were able to go home for holidays. But they were stripped of their Indigenous culture and language and, as the French sociologist Emile Durkheim said over a century ago, “If you reach into a culture and pull out the values and try to replace those values with new ones, a state of anomie – that is, purposelessness and alienation – will set in.” On top of that, many of the children were abused in these schools. The last closed in the 1990s. Today there are 80,000 Indigenous people alive who attended Residential Schools.

I was taken from my family at the age of two, together with my three siblings. In the following years they were allowed to return to our Aboriginal mother. But I was prevented from doing so. As I know from my welfare files now, this was because, being lighter skinned than the rest of my family; the authorities hoped they could hide my Aboriginal heritage from me permanently. Meanwhile in the home where I was fostered I was sexually abused many times by my foster father and foster brother. In Canada I found an instant rapport with Residential School Survivors, many of whom had endured similar experiences.

Though both the Australian and the Canadian Governments recognise that immense harm was caused by the policies which removed Indigenous children from their families, the response of the two Governments has been very different. And so has the response at community level.

In Canada the Government has agreed to fund a series of measures aimed at healing the harm caused by their removal policies, costing a total of $4.8 billion. They include compensation for everyone who attended a

Residential School, a variety of initiatives towards healing, and a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to uncover the story of the impact of the policies on Indigenous Canada. In Australia, since 1998 the Government has put about $15 million a year into implementing a few of the provisions of the Bringing Them Home report. And State Government initiatives have added a few million to this sum.

At community level, there has been a huge outpouring of concern in Australia, with vast media attention and nearly a million people signing Sorry Books. The Canadian community and media, however, have shown far less interest.

The Assembly of First Nations is responsible for developing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and they held a conference to work out how this could bring new understanding among the wider Canadian community. They know that Government programs alone are not going to do this. They hope to create the level of community concern which the Bringing Them Home report created in Australia. So they asked us to speak on ‘A Grassroots Apology Movement’, which we did. We also learnt a great deal about how Canada is going about healing the harm resulting from its removal policies.

Indigenous Canadians have gone through the same anguish as we have. One of our hosts, Residential School Survivor Or Maggie Hodgson, told us: ‘Extreme drinking and violence plagued many communities in the 1950s and 1960s. Communities were locked in their own pain. Most former Residential School students have had to cope with abuse suffered in the schools, abuse they may have suffered at home after they returned, and abuse they perpetrated on others.’

It is not very different to what we experience here. But Canada’s response has been totally different to that we see in the Northern Territory at present.

In the Canadian province of Alberta, in the early seventies, a group of Indigenous people established the Native Counselling Services. Its staff conducted 268 workshops in one year in Alberta communities on substance abuse. It was sacrificial work. The Director, Chester Cunningham, mortgaged his home to pay the staff, even though he had five children.

Then the Alberta Government met with Indigenous leaders, and they decided together that they would get on top of the social problems of Indigenous communities. The key issue, they decided, was alcohol abuse. A survey had shown that a large majority of those giving leadership in Indigenous communities abused alcohol. So the Alberta Government funded 150 drug and alcohol treatment centres across the Province, run by Indigenous people. As Dr Hodgson, told us: Ceremony and rituals reintroduced through treatment programs and through Elders were corner posts to building the strength to move to the next phase of our collective healing journey.’

Then they built a magnificent centre, the Nechi Institute, run entirely by indigenous people, which trains 200 Indigenous drug and alcohol workers a year. Now there are over 3,000 Indigenous people with this training, who have gone out across the Province with dramatic effect. Today, in the ballots which elect community leaders, a candidate has little chance of election if he abuses alcohol, and at least 40% of those giving leadership in Indigenous communities are non-drinkers.

Other Provinces implemented similar programs, with similar results. Dr Hodgson goes on: ‘As more people go through these programs, they are coming to a deep understanding that we are not to blame for what happened in the schools or in foster care. We are responsible, however, for the violence we have perpetrated, even if it has been limited to yelling at our children and bullying. Most former residential school students have abused others. Many have been punitive in their parenting styles, yelling, swearing, and threatening violence. As we have become more educated in the norms of parenting, abuse has declined. Each experience provides one more layer to peel off in our collective healing.’

‘Once our people became sober, they opened up, expressing their pain and their hopes. They started to understand that sobriety was just the first step towards rebuilding their future and their grandchildren’s future. The next step required personal action. They started to deal with the trauma, memories from foster care or residential schools.

‘Then we established treatment programs to deal with internal community violence, such as the Hollow Water Program in Manitoba and the Canime Lake treatment program for victims, sex offenders, and their families.

We started to take education seriously. In the mid-seventies there were only about 60 Indigenous graduates in Canada. By 1990 there were over 30,000. Today there are 60,000 – educators, lawyers, medical professionals, social workers and counsellors.’

In 1990 Phil Fontaine, the National Chief, decided to speak publicly about the abuse he had endured at a Residential School. This put the issue onto the national agenda. The first National Residential School Conference brought together 900 people from across Canada.

From this, some decided to take their abusers to court. They had become strong enough to say, There must be acknowledgement for what happened to me.’ Their actions have helped end the denial of history, the blaming of victims – and the silence about violence within Indigenous communities.

But they had to learn not to confuse litigation with healing. Litigation can destroy a person, and they realised that most people need to go through many stages of healing before they are strong enough to enter into litigation.

This is where the Aboriginal Healing Foundation has done such important work. They have a budget of $500 million, and they have used it to develop a wide range of healing initiatives. They have shown that if a person wants to heal from traumatic experiences, and is prepared to accept help, there is a huge amount that can be done.

As they went on with the litigation process, all sides realised that the traditional legal process was inadequate for resolving these issues. And too much of the money available for compensation was going to lawyers. They decided to develop an alternative dispute resolution process, based on dialogue between all sides. Through a ten-month period, they brought together Government and church representatives, with their lawyers, together with a total of 500 Survivors. The lawyers had to get used to a completely different approach, based on consensus rather than confrontation. It took a lot of hard work to develop a process which treated all sides with respect, but they made a lot of progress, and were able to resolve the grievances of many more people than through the court procedure.

But even this was not able to meet the need. So the Assembly of First Nations decided to take responsibility to negotiate the best agreement they could reach with the Government. The eventual outcome of that was the $4.8 billion agreement which I mentioned earlier. This will be accepted as long as a large majority of Survivors agrees to it, and we were told that it is highly likely that they will agree.’

Here in Australia a Stolen Generations person has, at last, won legal recognition of the harm done to him by his removal from his family. Previously, the only win we have had was in the NSW Victims of Crime Tribunal. Do we now make a total focus on the legal system as a means of gaining recognition, healing and closure?

We of the Stolen Generations Alliance believe that legal processes are part of the answer. Those who choose to put themselves through what Bruce Trevorrow endured, and who have a reasonable chance of success, will have our support.

But that cannot be our only priority. If Stolen Generations people were to win court cases and receive compensation while the rest of the Indigenous community remains deprived, that would alienate the Stolen Generations. We have to be part of the whole struggle for healing and justice.

As the Canadians recognised, here in Australia we have an asset which they would dearly like to have – the active empathy of a large section of the non-Indigenous population. That is the only reason we have been able to make progress under a Government which is hostile to Indigenous concerns. It will still be a vital asset if we have a Government more sympathetic to Indigenous concerns.

Because Governments do not have the power to heal. They can compensate, and that can be a big step towards healing. But healing means that people who have endured traumatic experiences in childhood find hope again. We learn how to overcome the handicaps which those experiences have left us with, and find a life that is satisfying, free of trauma, and creative. For that, we need not just restitution for the wrongs done to us. We need the ongoing support of an empathetic community.

If the Stolen Generations are to find healing and justice, this will come through a broad-based campaign which will offer a role to everyone who would like to play a part, Indigenous and non-Indigenous. That is what Sorry Day and the Journey of Healing have done.

I was removed from my family at the age of two, and was 20 when I decided to find my mother again. For months I received no help from the authorities, and then I only received some help because the officer in charge took pity on me and let me see information illegally. Even so, it still took me two years to track down my mother. And she died soon after our first meeting.

For some time bitterness and anger consumed me. But I learnt to rise above it. I have seen so often in Aboriginal communities that the transfer of anger from older to younger can be devastating. Past injustices, inflicted mostly by Governments, have led us into destructive and addictive patterns of behavior. Many stay that way for the rest of their lives. But do we have to keep living this way? What of our children? Cannot we make sure that our children do not suffer from the effects of these atrocities as we have done?

As I came to know our Elders, I saw how some of them are working to answer this situation. One Elder taught me much about compassion. This lady had all of her children taken from her, and some she never saw for the rest of her life. But though she had endured the most terrible of racist experiences, she maintained that we needed to live in the present and look to the future. She treated everyone as equals, regardless of race, religion or creed. She won the respect of many white Tasmanians, and profoundly altered attitudes towards Aboriginal people.

I realized that there are good people in this world and our own neighborhoods. If we are going to bring change, they need to be enlisted. That is what has led me to take leadership in the National Sorry Day Committee and the Stolen Generations Alliance.

Ever since 2000, we have organised events in Tasmania which have offered everyone the chance to help heal the wounds created by cruel and misguided past policies. When we organised a Sorry Day event, we had interest from all over the State. Enquiries came from schools. Health centres, government agencies and many community groups were keen to be involved. We planned an event on our community land, and invited people from all walks of life. We had speakers and performers from both the Aboriginal community and the wider community. Nothing like it had been done before, and it was very successful. It sent a message to our State Premier that many people were aware of the cruelties of our history, and wishes to atone for them. It was an awakening moment for many Tasmanians, who heard the stories of Stolen Generation survivors for the first time.

After the first Sorry Day the Journey of Healing was launched, to offer all who had apologised the chance to take part in healing the wounds. We continued year after year planning events, speaking in schools at all academic levels. We realized that what we had started could enable Tasmanians to look truthfully at our shared history, and this was vital if we were to build a new relationship.

Three years ago our State Premier died of lung cancer while in office. His dying wish to his successor was that he does justice to the Stolen Generations of Tasmania by offering compensation. His successor has fulfilled this wish, and the legislation for a compensation scheme has now been approved by both Houses of our State Parliament. Tasmania is the first State to do so, and its action is thereby challenging other States – and the Federal Government – to do likewise for their Stolen Generations Survivors. I have no doubt that the work we have done, year in and year out, has helped our Premiers and our Parliament to take this step.

Through my involvement in these matters, I have developed a keen interest in human rights, particularly social justice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. As a child I was powerless, but as an adult I am not. To repair self-esteem and self-worth can be incredibly hard, but I decided I was not prepared to remain a victim all my life. I want to work for both healing and justice, and I am grateful that I am working with people who have much positive energy.

I believe this energy comes from our determination to offer everyone, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, a part in shaping a new society, free of the racism which has scarred our nation. We invite everyone to work with us – the Stolen Generations, the whole Aboriginal community, Federal and State Governments and the wider Australian community.

There is much work to be done. Many educative structures are needed to enable Australians to understand the hurts and traumas which Aboriginal people in this country have endured, so that the wounds may heal. There is also much forgiveness and understanding needed within the Aboriginal community. So often the frustrations and injustices from the past are internalized, leading to division among us. This needs to be understood by the wider community. And we Aboriginal people need to take responsibility for our emotional and social well-being.

There is a conscious effort by many of all races to seek healing in this country. Reconciliation can become a way of life in this country, rather than a political tool used by Government for its own purposes. Then we will create for our children a country of healing, truth and justice.

Debra Hocking: Biographical Information

Derbra Hocking, a stolen generation survivor, is Chair of the Stolen Generations Alliance. A = the chair of The Stolen Generations Alliance, she hosted Phil Fontaine, the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, during his Australian journey from Canada; to Federal Parliament in Canberra, and to meet with the Rt. Hon. Malcolm Frascr, in October 2006.

She is Indigenous Chair of Achieving Reconciliation Tasmania, and has worked for many years on Aboriginal community health issues.

She is a Founding Member of Australians All

She has received the United Nations award for the year of the

Culture of Peace and the Human Rights award for

Humanitarian Activities in Tasmania.

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