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Saying sorry was just the first step

By Patmalar Ambikapathy Thuraisingham - posted Tuesday, 19 February 2008

Is a blot on our collective soul just a legal issue or an ethical and moral one as well?

In 1980 I attended an international conference for women lawyers in Sydney that was hosted by Australia. I met delegates from all over the world, including large numbers of women lawyers from third world countries. There I learned two things that were not part of the conference program and the first was a realisation that women from third world countries were far better represented in the upper echelons of the legal systems in their own countries than we were here.

The other was not addressed in any of the papers presented either, but dawned upon me at a session on Aboriginal land rights. It was standing room only and vigorous debate followed the presentation of an excellent paper by a woman barrister from Melbourne.


At that session I happened to be standing beside a Sioux American lawyer, a descendant of Sitting Bull. She had befriended me and together we heard first world women lawyers debate the legal merits of the issue. My Sioux colleague turned to me said ruefully “when will you people realise that this is a moral issue and not just a legal one?” I remember being stunned by her rhetorical question, and as I looked around the room, I could see and sense the puzzlement felt by many other Indigenous women lawyers, and I felt ashamed.

Twenty-eight years later, I hear Malcolm Turnbull staunchly pronounce on a Sunday television program today that he was not prepared to take on any guilt in this generation for what happened in the past - the mind boggles!

How can such a brilliant lawyer remain so unaware of the present day consequences of past colonial practices, be they the result of deliberate or misguided policies? Anguish and denial marks this type thinking but the difference that it appears to seek to promote, is lost when we witness the impact of past policies now on both children and adults.

The irony is that despite material gains achieved by some of the stolen generations, many suffered emotional scars that did not heal. Franz Fanon, in his book The Wretched of the Earth, referred to the struggle of Indigenous Algerians against French colonialists. That book led to concerns that children brought up in a culture that is not theirs, learn to emulate that dominant culture to the detriment of their mental wellbeing.

Mental confusion and despair can result when children realise that they can never be the same as those they are told to emulate. Despite being brought up as non Indigenous, they still experienced bias if not abuse in a society not based on Indigenous values in homes, schools, neighbourhoods and in the workplace. These become sites of oppression, and growing up with these inherent contradictions in the dominant discriminatory paradigm, can sow the seeds of trauma in a child’s psyche for a lifetime.

How bewildered would anyone be not knowing who their parents and relatives are and to grow up in an environment that denies their birth and background? How well adjusted would you, your children and grandchildren be with little to no knowledge of kinship ties or knowing how or where they belong?


It is not rocket science to realise that although some children may be seen to be “better off” by the yardstick of ethnocentric norms, that idea is flawed when even basic human rights like citizenship was denied them till 1967.

How can we live guilt and conscience free lives with third world conditions that, cause death and suffering to our Aboriginal citizens? How can some of us suffer the disadvantages others do not, without an apology or even an expression of regret? Why is it so hard for some to accept that we need to acknowledge and address these disadvantages experienced now? Problems have never been eliminated by denying or minimising them.

Why was it mostly Aboriginal children of mixed blood who were removed “for their own good” from their own cultural identity? Was it to permit them to partake in the benefits, privileges and rights non Aboriginals enjoyed? Why were these not provided equally to full blooded Aboriginals, living their diminished lives in stations and reserves, devoid of all they had before? Why is it still acceptable that this “better” life is not provided them too?

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About the Author

Patmalar Ambikapathy, BA ( Durham) Barrister ( London), M.Phil ( Cambridge), is a Barrister and Human Rights Consultant for Children.

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All articles by Patmalar Ambikapathy Thuraisingham

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