Growing up in suburban Adelaide as an Aboriginal kid in the 70’s and 80’s wasn’t exactly a joyous childhood. Sure there were fun times like being able to play in your street with the next door neighbours, riding your bike, playing Hopscotch, or Hide ‘n’ Seek.
I’m the product of an Aboriginal mother and a Dutch father. My mother is an Arrente woman. Her mother was born at Ntaria also known as Hermannsburg Mission on Western Arrente country in Central Australia. Her father was born under the shade of a Coolibah Tree at Adelaide River, in the Northern Territory. My father, the son of a Dutch Jew, who migrated to Australia from Holland as a teenager. Their marriage in 1964 made newspaper headlines, “Migrant marries native girl”.
My parents separated when I was only 3 years old. While I maintained a strong connection to my Dutch side of the family, I grew up black. Being the only Aboriginal kid at primary school and one of only 3 Aboriginal kids at high school does not bring back fond memories. In fact it’s a time I’d rather forget.
Most of my time at high school was spent trying to lay low and not be noticed just in case I would be singled out by other kids, non-Aboriginal kids. Names like ‘dirty boong’ or ‘coon’ and phrases like, “watch out the black might rub off”, still haunt me. I remember walking passed a group of students in the school yard or on my way home, and deliberately walking in another direction or taking a different route home. Those were just a few of the survival tactics I used to avoid kids from school and to avoid the barrage of derogatory comments. Racism during my primary and secondary school years was rife.
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I remember wanting to leave high school altogether just to avoid it. And I would have if it wasn’t for my mum, aunty and grandpa instilling in me the need for a good education. I recall during my primary schooling, many days, months and on one occasion, there was one year, where I did not attend school at all. From the age of 4 up until I was a 7 or 8, I missed quite a bit of my primary school education.
Like many Aboriginal families during that time, we moved around a lot and I remember attending many different primary schools, in fact 4 or 5 different primary schools by the time I was 11 or 12 years of age. It was a very unsettling time. My mum was a single parent receiving the pension. We had various family members living with us, aunties, uncles, and family friends. There wasn’t a lot of money and as a result, not much food in the house and I remember many times finishing my homework by candle light because the electricity and gas would be disconnected because Mum simply could not afford to pay the bills.
I remember having to cycle to the local delicatessen to ask if we could book up some groceries to tie us over for another fortnight until Mum’s next pension day. Receiving food vouchers from St Vincent De Paul’s was a regular occurrence. Mum was always in ill health so I had to take responsibility of looking after my younger sister who was born with a mild intellectual disability and later developed Schizophrenia.
I remember growing up, being fearful of the welfare authorities. Worried that if I didn’t attend school regularly that the welfare people might come to get me and take me away and place me with another family. Worried that if we had no food in the house the welfare might one day knock on the door and take me away from Mum. It was a real fear that I know many Aboriginal people can relate too, especially those growing up in the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s and 80’s and even today.
— Kevin Rudd (@MrKRudd) May 25, 2016
There was a real sense of fear of the authorities. It was the same with the police. They would come knocking on our door and sometimes under cops or detectives, looking for my Uncles. I’d be sent to answer the door while my uncles hid in a back shed. I’d have to lie and say that I had no knowledge of my uncle’s whereabouts. I’d be nervous and scared. I hated lying to the authorities and worried they’d take me away for lying or not co-operating with them. Believe it or not I still live with that fear of Police today.
From the age of 8, I went to live with my Aunty and Uncle for a few years to give my mother a break. They provided with a roof over my head, food on the table, a safe environment, love, support and encouragement. Thankfully, I was one of the lucky ones. In my eyes, I had been saved from the dreaded welfare. Sadly, thousands of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children were not so lucky. The forced removal of Aboriginal children from their families took place from the late 1800’s through to the 1970’s.
Known as the Stolen Generations, these children were stolen, many would never see their parents, siblings or relatives again. They were taken to live in girls or boys homes, institutions or placed with white families or taken to live on Missions. It was part of Government policy to get rid of the ‘Aboriginal problem’, to assimilate us into the white population and make us more like white people, in the hope that by removing us from our families and forbidding us to speak our language and practice our culture, the Aboriginal race would die out. They were committing genocide against Aboriginal people and our culture.
Despite many government policies to rid us of the Australian population, we have survived and will continue to do so. Today, National Sorry Day, or the National Day of Healing as it’s now known, gives us an opportunity to acknowledge and reflect on the past, to think about those who were affected by past policies of forced removal, and to offer them support and to heal the wounds of the past. The first National Sorry Day was held on the 26th May 1998, a year after the tabling of the Bringing Them Home Report, the result of a 2 year national inquiry into the forced removal of Indigenous children.
Ten years later, the then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, did what no other PM would do and gave a formal national apology to members of the Stolen Generation on behalf of the Parliament of Australia. I remember the day clearly. It was an historic moment for our nation. It was what Indigenous Australians had been waiting to hear for so long. But 8 years since Kevin Rudd said “sorry”, how far have we really come as a nation? Have we seen much needed improvements in the lives of Indigenous Australians?
While the apology was no doubt a significant moment in the nation’s history, has it improved the life expectancy rates of our First Nations people? Has it lowered the extremely high and appalling rates of incarceration of Indigenous people? Have we seen a decrease in suicides and deaths in custody? Has it addressed the high levels of family violence in our communities?
Year after year we hear governments talk about closing the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australian’s in terms of health, education, employment, housing and so on. We hear about the millions of dollars poured into Aboriginal affairs to address these very real and concerning problems. But is any of this really improving the social and economic status of Australia’s First Nations people?
I’ve been reporting on and highlighting these issues in the media for over 20 years. While the plight of Indigenous Australians has improved on a small scale, it saddens me that as a journalist I have to keep on covering the same pressing issues facing Aboriginal people year after year. Today, on this National Day of Healing we know that Indigenous children continue to be removed from our families.
In fact, since the National Apology, the rates of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in out of home care has risen by 65%. We are now at a time in this nation where the national conversation is ramping up over constitutional recognition and talks of a treaty.
It’s now time for those involved to ensure that whatever outcomes derive from these talks, that it isn’t just all talk or hollow words. We need action and it needs to happen now.
Indigenous Australians should have the right to be hopeful for a bright and positive future in their own country.
Karla Grant is a Presenter, Journalist and Executive Producer of Living Black on SBS and NITV.