Part of what is so important about history—to me—is how it is connected to our here and now. As a social scientist, and as an individual who is directly affected by my own nation's ugly history of enslavement and deeply embedded systemic racism, examining how nations (as represented by their elected officials) deal with past violations of the civil and human rights of a portion of their citizenry is a topic I find deeply absorbing. I also think there is much we can learn that we can apply by examining both mistakes, and contemporary attempts at redress.
Presidents, prime ministers, heads of state—as representatives of their countries—have, in recent years, made heartfelt statements of apology (or signed proclamations of apology) to those who suffered under regimes and programs which adversely affected those targeted by specific laws or programs.
They've said, "We are sorry."
I applaud this, but it also raises the question, "What is sorry backed up with?" Are funds allocated to repair damage done? What programs are instituted to begin often emotionally fraught confrontations, or to begin the process of reparation and reconciliation? Sorry proclamations may not be worth the paper they are printed on and the press they get (or sometimes don't get) without a way to implement new policy and programs.
When this subject is broached, I have often read comments, even from the well-meaning, that "they," whoever "they" are, in the context of the specific, should just "get over it." There are people who seem to have a time frame, who stammer, "But ... but ... but ... that was 20 years ago, 40 years ago, 100 years ago ... so forget about it and move forward." There are others who are irritated by those who are survivors, or current sufferers, who simply avoid dealing with any of it, stating flatly, "Well ... I had nothing to do with it ... I didn't vote for it, participate in it, benefit from it, my family wasn't even here when that happened ..." Then there is the "blame the victim" cadre who rush out squawking loudly the moment any social injustice discussion takes place. They employ tactics of brushing off, distorting and denying, rather than looking at a national responsibility for wrongs, and embracing efforts to right them.
From my perspective as a citizen of the U.S., I also find it important to examine, to the best of my ability, how nations other than my own are dealing with or have dealt with their apologies. Clearly, no two situations are exactly the same, governments differ, as do demographics and history, but there are enough similarities between the individual situations, I think, to perhaps learn from, and apply.
I cannot, in one post, cover each of the examples that I have been following for some time, in depth, so this will begin a mini-series.
I'm starting with a recent event that has been discussed widely in the international press, but may not have gotten much attention here, simply because, imho, our media doesn't do a particularly good job of paying attention to world news, unless it has a direct impact on us as a nation. Sometimes, not even then does it become more than a blip in the news cycle.
I'm speaking about Australia, and the recent apology proffered by Prime Minister Julia Gillard on March 21, 2013, for what had been a draconian program of forced adoptions. (As an aside, I think that we paid more attention to Gillard when a twit here announced she was moving to Australia when Barack Obama was elected.)
Gillard was elected in 2010 to become the 27th prime minister of Australia, and the leader of the Australian Labor Party. She is the first woman to do either.
This video is the complete speech given by PM Gillard at the Great Hall of Parliament in Canberra, where there were over 800 people in the audience affected by the forced adoptions, who had traveled from all over the country to be present for her address.
No one knows the exact numbers of white children who were removed from their mothers, but the government estimate is about 250,000. Add to this figure the removal of about 100,000 Australian Aboriginal children, called "the Stolen Generation," for which in 2008 Prime Minister Kevin Rudd also issued an apology, and the numbers of people affected by these removals, and the impact is staggering.
Follow me below the fold for the transcript of her remarks, the reactions and the history behind these national Australian mea culpas.
IndependentAustralia.net has the complete text of PM Gillard's speech, and I will not reprint it in its entirety, but I think it is important to post key excerpts here.
Today, this Parliament, on behalf of the Australian people, takes responsibility and apologises for the policies and practices that forced the separation of mothers from their babies, which created a lifelong legacy of pain and suffering.When she continued, she backed up the apology with a commitment to providing services (to loud applause):
2. We acknowledge the profound effects of these policies and practices on fathers.
3. And we recognise the hurt these actions caused to brothers and sisters, grandparents, partners and extended family members.
4. We deplore the shameful practices that denied you, the mothers, your fundamental rights and responsibilities to love and care for your children. You were not legally or socially acknowledged as their mothers. And you were yourselves deprived of care and support.
5. To you, the mothers who were betrayed by a system that gave you no choice and subjected you to manipulation, mistreatment and malpractice, we apologise.
6. We say sorry to you, the mothers who were denied knowledge of your rights, which meant you could not provide informed consent. You were given false assurances. You were forced to endure the coercion and brutality of practices that were unethical, dishonest and in many cases illegal.
7. We know you have suffered enduring effects from these practices forced upon you by others. For the loss, the grief, the disempowerment, the stigmatisation and the guilt, we say sorry.
8. To each of you who were adopted or removed, who were led to believe your mother had rejected you and who were denied the opportunity to grow up with your family and community of origin and to connect with your culture, we say sorry.
9. We apologise to the sons and daughters who grew up not knowing how much you were wanted and loved.
10. We acknowledge that many of you still experience a constant struggle with identity, uncertainty and loss, and feel a persistent tension between loyalty to one family and yearning for another.
11. To you, the fathers, who were excluded from the lives of your children and deprived of the dignity of recognition on your children’s birth records, we say sorry. We acknowledge your loss and grief.
12. We recognise that the consequences of forced adoption practices continue to resonate through many, many lives. To you, the siblings, grandparents, partners and other family members who have shared in the pain and suffering of your loved ones or who were unable to share their lives, we say sorry.
13. Many are still grieving. Some families will be lost to one another forever. To those of you who face the difficulties of reconnecting with family and establishing on-going relationships, we say sorry.
14. We offer this apology in the hope that it will assist your healing and in order to shine a light on a dark period of our nation’s history.
15. To those who have fought for the truth to be heard, we hear you now. We acknowledge that many of you have suffered in silence for far too long.
16. We are saddened that many others are no longer here to share this moment. In particular, we remember those affected by these practices who took their own lives. Our profound sympathies go to their families.
17. To redress the shameful mistakes of the past, we are committed to ensuring that all those affected get the help they need, including access to specialist counselling services and support, the ability to find the truth in freely available records and assistance in reconnecting with lost family.She continued and quoted the words of some of the survivors.
18. We resolve, as a nation, to do all in our power to make sure these practices are never repeated. In facing future challenges, we will remember the lessons of family separation. Our focus will be on protecting the fundamental rights of children and on the importance of the child’s right to know and be cared for by his or her parents.
19. With profound sadness and remorse, we offer you all our unreserved apology.
At the end, she again referenced a commitment to take specific action, backed by funding.
We also pledge resources to match today’s words with actions.This is a good start. Australia faces many of the same issues we face here in the U.S. Racism toward Aborigines, and directed at immigrants who aren't "white"—the White Australia Policy ended "officially in 1973—but that hasn't erased racism. Gillard faces her own challenges on many fronts, and no matter how Aussies feel about her politics, it is clear that she has been battling sexist misogyny on a daily basis, coupled with attacks that reek of both racism and sexism after issuing this national apology. The comments sections in their papers are filled with the same slimy trolls we find on U.S. sites.
We will provide $5 million to improve access to specialist support and records tracing for those affected by forced adoptions.
And we will work with the states and territories to improve these services.
The Government will also deliver $5 million so that mental health professionals can better assist in caring for those affected by forced adoption.
We will also provide $1.5 million for the National Archives to record the experiences of those affected by forced adoption through a special exhibition.
Having worked with adoptees here in the U.S. and with birth mothers seeking those children they had to give up, the commitment to open records and assist in the searches is extremely important.
This BBC story has interviews with some of the women who were coerced, and a social worker who participated in the practice.
The closing words of the reporter gave me a chill:
"Generations of women were punished for having sex outside of marriage."
Hearing those words I thought about the tawdry U.S. history of removing children from "un-wed" mothers. Referred to as "the Baby Scoop Era," more must be said about what happened right here:
From approximately 1940 to 1970, it is estimated that up to 4 million mothers in the United States surrendered newborn babies to adoption; 2 million during the 1960s alone. Annual numbers for non-relative adoptions increased from an estimated 33,800 in 1951 to a peak of 89,200 in 1970, then quickly declined to an estimated 47,700 in 1975. (This does not include the number of infants adopted and raised by relatives. In contrast, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services estimates that only 14,000 infants were "voluntarily" surrendered in 2003.I can remember having friends who "went away," and came back quiet and distressed.
This period of history has been documented in scholarly books such as Wake Up Little Susie and Beggars and Choosers, both by historian Rickie Sollinger, and social histories such as The Girls Who Went Away by Ann Fessler, a professor of photography at the Rhode Island School of Design who exhibited an art installation by the same title. It is also the theme of the documentary Gone To A Good Home by Film Australia.
Young women are still stigmatized as "baby mommas," and though it is not PC to use the term "illegitimacy," it's still around. The relentless pressure of the right-wing movement here to restrict access to birth control and abortion, no commitment to affordable childcare, discrimination against pregnant teens in school systems, coupled with sanctimonious religious mouthings about sin and sex outside of "traditional marriage" will ensure that in the years ahead we will not have faced this as a nation.
In this opening story I have not covered the treatment of Aboriginal people in Australia, and the the removals of Native children here in the U.S. and in Canada. Or the forced removal of Japanese Americans to camps. Nor have I talked about reconciliation, a policy which is taking place in Canada, and for different reasons, but the same underlying causes was undertaken in South Africa. South Africa has been on my mind due to the reports on the health of Nelson Mandela.
I promise those subjects will be addressed in the weeks ahead.
Tune in next Sunday for "The Stolen Generations."