This week, we address the idea of reconciliation. However, moving forward, I believe we’re limiting ourselves. What we need is re-education.
I really don’t believe in Reconciliation. Truth be told, I have held this view since I was about fourteen, growing up in my native North Queensland.
I remember coming to this realisation fondly. Despite having grown up in a strong Indigenous household, the first part of the formation of this belief came to me while I was a student at a single sex Christian Brothers Catholic school in suburban Townsville. It was the first day back for term three and the school had organised for the manual arts teacher, Ray Stanley, to address the assembly on what NAIDOC week meant to him.
Mr Stanley told of how he was taken from his mother, an Aboriginal woman from Cherbourg, at a very young age, and recalled the time he met his mother for the very first time when he was older. What he mentioned next stood out very clearly to me. “We talk about reconciliation quite a fair bit, but what does it really mean? To me reconciliation implies that a couple came together, had a fight, separated, but they have decided to get back together again; reconciliation.” He then continued by saying “we have to ask ourselves, while things may seem good now, were Indigenous people and non-Indigenous people friends in the first place? It seems to me that we are only starting to come together now.”
It is a question that I have asked myself ever since, and Mr Stanley’s words couldn’t have come at a better time. Four months later, over on nearby Palm Island, Mulrunji Doomadgee was found dead in his cell at the Palm Island watch house, and in response over 200 residents of the island converged on both the police station and courthouse and burnt it down. Townsville became ground zero in the aftermath of the Palm Island riot (particularly during the trial) and racial tensions blew up like a dormant volcano. The experience of growing up in Townsville at the time and witnessing some of the racism that occurred made me continuously ponder those very words I heard four months earlier: “were we ever really friends in the first place?”
Why am I telling you this? I believe we need to have a conservation. One that involves the telling of some blunt truths around the sins of our colonial past, but it is a conversation which I am hopeful will bring groups of people together in a conciliatory manner and lead our country forward with greater cohesion and unity. However, in order for that conversation to begin, and in the spirit of truth-telling, I am telling you my truth, and now it is beyond time for the rest of the country to do the same. We all need to tell our truths.
While our education curriculum continues to include more Indigenous knowledge, any moves to rectify inaccuracies in our history are often disparaged as a “black armband” view, and this stifles the long term relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples.
In May 2017, 250 delegates (plus a few hundred more people ranging from observers to well-wishers, and those protesting proceedings) converged on Uluru in one of the largest gatherings of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders this country has seen since the days of ATSIC. The delegates voted unanimously to support three recommendations which were then released and outlined in a document that has since been coined as the Statement from the Heart.
One of the recommendations that came from that convention was the development of a Truth and Justice Commission. While the finer details of those recommendations are still yet to be fleshed out, my understanding is that such a commission would be responsible for leading the conversation on the truth-telling of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history. To me, this is the most important recommendation to come out of the Uluru convention.
When it comes to understanding the home truths of our colonial past, Australia is well and truly behind. In the 50 years since the successful 1967 referendum, our country has made great strides to bridge the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia. The ’70s, ’80s and the early ’90s are considered as a particularly notable time of improvement. This period saw the establishment of the Department of Aboriginal Affairs, calls for a treaty and the development of Makarrata and the Barunga Statement, Paul Keating’s Redfern Address, and the establishment of ATSIC to name a few. While these great strides were made with the best of intentions, the relatively feel-good nature of the era meant that there was still one thing we shied away from as a country, and that was a tough conversation on the impacts of government policies towards Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
Truth-telling is important as it allows us to understand the true impacts of colonisation. It includes understanding what truly transpired at Myall Creek, or Butchers Creek, what powers the Native Police were given by their respective states, or the reasons why places such as Palm Island, Cherbourg, Cumeragunga or Wadeye (to name a few) came into existence. Ever wanted to know what traditional custodians called certain places or landmarks before their current names were bestowed? What about the survivors of the stolen generations or those placing claims for stolen wages in various state reparations schemes? What impact did these government policies have on them and their family’s wellbeing? Is trans-generational trauma still being felt amongst their descendants as a result?
While our education curriculum continues to include more Indigenous knowledge as time goes on, simple facts around events such as the 1967 referendum or the “discovery” of Australia by James Cook continue to be taught with a vein of inaccuracy and largely go unchallenged. Any moves to rectify such inaccuracies in our history are often disparaged as a “black armband” view, and this antagonism towards understanding real truths stifles the long term relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. This needs to change if we seek it.
Numerous organisations, historians and academics have been asking these questions or holding these conversations for many years, though the political willpower to hold these conversations on a broader level at both a state or federal level has largely been non-existent. Hopefully, a new commission will facilitate that much-needed conversation at a broader community level – a conversation which is held outside of our academic institutions, a conversation which can be held not only in the inner-city, but out in the suburbs, regional cities, towns and remote agricultural stations alike. It is well overdue for that conversation to happen.
So yes, while I personally don’t believe in the concept of reconciliation in the context of the existing relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia, what I do believe in is conciliation, the firm belief that the people of our country, whether they are white, black, brown, yellow or brindle, will come together and one day resolve our differences and move forward in a cohesive and unified manner. And if you share that same vision, then let’s have the tough conversations. The relationship between the various peoples of our country can’t progress further without it.