Furor over scale of Aboriginal assimilation
Australian minister's report says only 10 percent of Aboriginal children are 'stolen.'
When Prime Minister John Howard unveiled a literacy program for Aboriginal children last week, he proudly called it a step toward white Australia's "practical reconciliation" with the country's Aborigines.Skip to next paragraph
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His conservative administration may not always please Aboriginal leaders with its refusal to apologize for past government acts, Mr. Howard argued, but it was intent on bettering the lives of Aborigines in practical ways - health and education, better teacher training, and truancy programs.
The genuine, grass-roots initiative won plaudits from Aboriginal leaders. But there may be no better sign of just how emotional an issue the past treatment of Aborigines is for Australians than how quickly that goodwill dissipated.
A week after unveiling his "practical reconciliation" policy, the Australian government appears to be plowing its way toward a new low in relations with the country's Aboriginal community. In fact, some Aboriginal leaders are vowing to stage violent protests at the upcoming Summer Olympics in Sydney.
"It's burn baby burn, from now on," one activist, Charles Perkins, told reporters. "Anything can happen" at the Olympics.
The trigger for such anger were comments this weekend by Howard's Aboriginal affairs minister. In a submission to parliament he said that the government's program of "assimilation" in the 1940s and '50s - taking Aboriginal children from their mothers and placing them with white families - was overblown by Aboriginal activists. The minister says only 1 in 10 Aboriginal children of the day were involved.
Those Aboriginal children who were put into orphanages or farmed out to white families in an effort to remove them from Aboriginal culture are now adults. Some are leaders in the Aboriginal-rights movement. And the issue of facing up to this assimilation policy now stands at the center of the debate over just how to mend relations between Aborigines and white Australians.
The children taken from their families are commonly referred to as the "stolen children" in Australia, and to many their generation is the "stolen generation."
Many leading Aboriginal activists and leaders, including Mr. Perkins, who was taken from his mother at age 10 and put into an orphanage, were taken from their families. Some argue the government's policy of assimilation is at the roots of many problems facing Aborigines today.
"There's not an Aboriginal person in Australia that wasn't affected in some way," says Linda Briskman, a lecturer on Aboriginal issues at Deakin University in Melbourne. "There are probably some people still out there who were adopted and farmed out, and may still not know about their Aboriginal past."
What angers indigenous leaders now is the fact that Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Herron argued on behalf of the government in a report leaked to the local media that it was wrong to refer to the children as the stolen "generation."
Ten percent, or a generation
One in 10 Aboriginal children were taken from their families as a result of government policy, Mr Herron said in his defense later, and "we're arguing it's not a generation if it was 10 percent. If it was a generation it means the whole generation so we think it's a misnomer."
If it were a semantic argument, Mr. Herron would be right, although the 1997 report that brought the issue of assimilation into the public limelight said anywhere from 10 percent to 33 percent of Aboriginal children were taken from their families as a result of government policies.
But what angers Aboriginal leaders so much is the fact that Herron, the minister ostensibly appointed to represent them, could make a semantic argument about what many see as an attempt at cultural genocide.