Moralising over Trump’s removal of children from parents is a dilemma for Australia who has its own history of removing children from their family and communities.
We still grapple with a history of “whitewashing” Indigenous children and the brutality and lovelessness of the treatment still causes trauma and grief.
There are thousands of victims, survivors and descendants of Australia’s century-long drive to eradicate its native people – in particular, the children forcibly taken from their families and sent to the government – sponsored institutions.
Victims tell of being beaten, physically scarred for speaking their native language, forbidden from communicating with siblings, humiliated for wetting the bed and whipped if they attempted to escape.
Even after it signed the United Nations Declaration of Universal Human Rights in response to the horrors of World War II, Australia continued to remove children from their mothers and send them to be stripped of their culture at institutions administered by Christian churches and missions.
Two primary objectives of the child removal system were to remove and isolate children from the influence of their homes, families, communities, traditions and cultures, and to assimilate them into the dominant culture. These objectives were based on the assumption aboriginal cultures and spiritual beliefs were inferior and unequal.
These institutions were not part of an education program. They were part of an elimination plan: the ‘Bringing Them Home’ report called it genocidal.
The question of compensation remains outstanding. While the ‘Bringing Them Home’ report recommended it: the Rudd government chose to ignore this key recommendation. Many people feel the much lauded ‘Apology’ – while powerful – was hollow and that Rudd fudged a key opportunity for justice and healing.
In contrast Canada (In 2005) consolidated all the lawsuits against the government and church groups and agreed to an omnibus settlement that established a restitution fund for victims of its equivalent residential schools. The government and church entities paid into the fund on the premise that they would be indemnified against future lawsuits.
By 2017 that fund had paid out $3.1 billion to more than 37,000 victims of the residential schools: a base sum of $10,000 each, plus more depending on how severely they were abused and how grievously their lives had been affected later.
Men and women told of how they had been forced into vehicles by police. The survivors testified about being beaten, starved and locked up in cabinets if they were caught sneaking into the girls’ dormitory, homesick and lonesome, to see a big sister. They recalled constant hunger and fear. Instead of receiving an education, they were forced to work in kitchens and laundries and at farm labour; if they attempted to escape, they were whipped until their backs were bloody and scarred. Police chased them down, while staff administered the beatings. There was sexual abuse.
The institutions rarely had enough food, and the buildings were of shoddy construction, subject to mould and damp. Death rates from infection and injury at the institutions far outpaced that if children in the wider community.
Other times parents showed up at the schools seeking to see their children and were denied—and the homesick children were never told their parents had asked for them.
The policy was explicit: The children needed to be taken out of their communities and away from their families to “civilise them.” All students, whether they had family or not, were legally wards of the state. When they were released as teenagers they returned to communities broken, estranged from family, unable to speak their language but barely educated in English. Addiction and domestic violence roared out of them. They flooded through generations and out through families and washed back up in more ruined lives.
First Nations people began complaining about the child removal system from its inception, but they were ignored. The white government of the day thought they knew better than the parents begging for their children.
What happened with these kids is unacceptable. There was no way to process what happened to them, try to untangle the past from the present.
The hardest thing is facing the fact that we were responsible for so many people, for robbing them of their dignity and their culture.
They have been denied compensation once. The current Royal Commission has had a different focus; nevertheless it will again make survivors and descendants wonder where is their justice, if compensation is again denied for the abuse they received as a result of implementation of government policy.