Faculty Film Series: Rabbit-Proof Fence
Columbia Law School Student Hannah Canham on Australia's Stolen Generations. This Tuesday, the Faculty Film Series presents a screening of Rabbit-Proof Fence, a moving Australian film based on the true story of three young Aboriginal girls who were forcibly removed from their families by government authorities. The girls were part of what is now known as the Stolen Generations. For those not familiar with the Australian government policy at the center of the film, below is an overview of the Stolen Generations and more recent political responses thereto. The film screening includes dinner and a discussion facilitated by Professors Shawn Watts and Brett Dignam and Hannah Canham (’16). We hope you will join us. The film screening will be held from 6:30-9:00pm at Columbia Law School, Jerome Greene Hall Room 107.
New York, April 12, 2016—“The Stolen Generations” is a term used to describe Indigenous Australian children taken from their families by Australian governments, churches and welfare organizations between the early 1900s and the 1970s. Between one in three and one in ten Indigenous children were forcibly removed from their families and communities between 1910 and 1970.[i] Stated motivations for the abductions ranged from child welfare concerns to expressly genocidal hopes to eradicate Indigenous people. The history of the Stolen Generations remains highly politically contentious in Australia.
The policy of assimilation led governments to remove children from their Indigenous parents and send them to live in institutions under white supervision. Cecil Cook, the “Chief Protector of Aborigines” in the Northern Territory in the 1930s, described efforts to “breed him white” and ensure “the complete disappearance of the black race”.[ii] A.O. Neville, Cook’s counterpart in Western Australia, took the same approach, hoping to “merge them into our white community and eventually forget that there were ever any Aborigines in Australia”.[iii] Children were classified as “half castes”, “full bloods” and “octroons” in the pseudo-scientific language of eugenics. A 1937 conference of state and federal governments stated that the destiny of Aboriginal Australians “lies in their ultimate absorption”.
Conservative historians tend to attribute generally benevolent attitudes to those that developed and implemented the forced removals, and argue that relatively few individuals were actually removed. Part of the difficulty in determining how many children were removed relates to the deliberate failure of governments to keep accurate records. Article 127 of the Australian Constitution read from 1901, “In reckoning the numbers of the people of the Commonwealth, or of a State or other part of the Commonwealth, aboriginal natives shall not be counted.” This section was removed in 1967 with over 90% of Australians voting to amend the Constitution. Many children, especially twins or triplets, were taken immediately at birth, without every being documented at all.
Children were often removed while police restrained their parents. They were taken, occasionally to foster families and generally to church run institutions. The conditions in the institutions were harsh. Children were taught to reject their Aboriginality, and punished for speaking their native languages. Many faced sexual and physical abuse.[iv] Some children were placed in work by the authorities, but never received wages. Children were denied opportunities to communicate with their families. Many were told falsely that they had been rejected by their parents, or that their parents were dead.
By the late 1980s Indigenous Australian activists and historians had managed to raise awareness of the Stolen Generations. However, the extent of the forced removals was not revealed until the 700-page Bringing Them Home report. The report was the product of an extensive national inquiry that took place from 1995 through 1997. The Inquiry conducted hearings across Australia, and concluded, “the Australian practice of Indigenous child removal involved both systematic racial discrimination and genocide as defined by international law”.[v] The inquiry made 54 recommendations, including that reparations be paid, and that Australian parliaments offer formal apologies. Then Prime Minister John Howard refused to issue an apology, arguing that Australia had been “too apologetic”[vi] and that “the balance sheet of our history is one of heroic achievement”.[vii] Howard was ousted in the 2007 federal election.
The first order of business for the new parliament was Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s apology on behalf of the federal government to the Stolen Generations. The Prime Minister said,
“For the pain, suffering, and hurt of these Stolen Generations, their descendants and for their families left behind, we say sorry. To the mothers and the fathers, the brothers and the sisters, for the breaking up of families and communities, we say sorry. And for the indignity and degradation thus inflicted on a proud people and a proud culture, we say sorry.”[viii]
The apology was welcomed by many Indigenous people and members of the Stolen Generations. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, Tom Calma, said that the Parliament had “paid respect to the Stolen Generations. For their suffering and their loss. For their resilience. And ultimately, for their dignity.”[ix]
The federal government has to date refused to provide reparations to members of the Stolen Generations, although Bruce Trevorrow, a South Australian man stolen from his mother at the age of 13 months, launched a successful court action for compensation against the state government.[x] Following calls from Indigenous activists for reparations, two states, Tasmania and South Australia, have instituted schemes whereby members of the Stolen Generations may access compensation without litigation.
While recognizing the power of the apology and efforts at reparations, it is important to note that Indigenous communities still suffer systemic disadvantage disproportionately to non-Indigenous Australians. Indigenous Australians account for around 3% of the Australian population, but about 27% of Australia’s prison population.[xi] Indigenous unemployment is approximately three times that of the nation overall.[xii] The life expectancy gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians is at least ten years.[xiii] Particularly worryingly, Indigenous children are still over-represented in their contact with Australian welfare departments and are far more likely to be placed in “out of home care” than their non-Indigenous counterparts.[xiv]
The effects of the forcible removal of children over most of the 20th century are hard to quantify. The Bringing Them Home report estimated that there was not an Indigenous family in Australia untouched in some way by the practice. Although the federal government has offered an apology, and some governments have introduced reparations, the trauma inflicted by the genocidal policies of Australian governments is still felt by Indigenous people across Australia today.
[i] Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, Bringing Them Home - Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families, 1997, p. 31.
[v] Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, Bringing Them Home - Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families, 1997, p. 234.
[vi] House of Representatives Hansard, October 30, 1996, p. 6155.
[vii] John Howard, “Sir Robert Menzies Lecture”, Robert Blackwood Hall, Monash University, Melbourne, November 18, 1996.
[viii] House of Representatives Hansard, February 13, 2008, p. 167.
[ix] Tom Calma, “Let the healing begin - Response to government to the national apology to the Stolen Generations”, February 13, 2008, Member’s Hall, Parliament House, Canberra.
[x] Trevorrow v State of South Australia (No. 5)  SASC 285.
[xi] Australian Bureau of Statistics, 3238.0.55.001 - Estimates of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, June 2011, <http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/mf/3238.0.55.001>; Australian Bureau of Statistics, 4517.0 - Prisoners in Australia, 2015, <http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Lookup/by%20Subject/4517.0~2015~Main%20Features~Aboriginal%20and%20Torres%20Strait%20Islander%20prisoner%20characteristics~7>.
[xiv] Larissa Behrendt, Chris Cunneen, Terri Libesman, Indigenous Legal Relations in Australia, Oxford University Press, 2008, Ch. 4.