On the 20th anniversary of Sorry Day, May 26, a day to remember the forced removal of First Nations' children from their families that became known as the Stolen Generations, a delegation of First Nations' grandmothers marched on Parliament House chanting "Bring our children home".
Rather than being a landmark for progress and reconciliation the delegation of Grandmothers said that 20 years on, the situation has only worsened.
The delegation was made up of two grassroots groups: Grandmothers Against Removals (GMAR), formed in 2014 in Gunnedah, NSW and since spread across the country; and the Strong Grandmothers of the Central Desert, formed in the Northern Territory in 2016 in response to increasing brutality toward Aboriginal children by police and abuse in youth detention.
Explaining the meaning behind Sorry Day, chairperson of the NSW Aboriginal Land Council, Roy Ah-See, said: "Under this cruel policy, the people we now recognise as the Stolen Generations lost their childhood, language and culture. The tens of thousands of members of the Stolen Generations are survivors and Australian society must support them on their long journey of healing.
"[F]or Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and the broader Australian community, National Sorry Day is our opportunity to show respect for the courage and resilience of the Stolen Generations and their families."
Sorry Day was just one of the recommendations of the Bringing Them Home report tabled by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission in 1997. The report comprehensively documented the mistreatment of Australia's First Peoples by consecutive federal and state governments from the 19th century to the 1970s.
However, of the 54 recommendations from the report, only two have ever been implemented: Sorry Day and the national Apology to the Stolen Generations, made by then-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in 2008.
At the time of the Apology, the number of First Nations children in out-of-home care was just over 9000. In the past decade this has nearly doubled, with the latest figures showing 17,664 First Nations’ children currently in out-of-home care.
This also comes at a time when the Northern Territory police recently announced that no charges would be laid following the Royal Commission into the Protection and Detention of Children in the Northern Territory, despite findings of widespread systemic failures and abusive behaviour by prison guards, which breached Australian and International Laws.
"Ten years on from Rudd’s apology, this is criminal. Our Indigenous incarceration rate is the highest in the world and our young people are filling jails where they are systematically abused and routinely tortured as evidenced by the recent NT Royal Commission," the Grandmothers’ delegation said in a statement.
"We are calling for an immediate end to the ongoing Stolen Generations and the persecution of our children by state agencies, from welfare to the police. We want a national restoration program enacted immediately to return all our children in state care and police custody to their families and their Country. Departmental heads must take direction from, and work hand in hand, with local grandmothers groups and families to develop effective restoration pathways that are context specific and culturally appropriate.
"We have the answers for our children’s wellbeing within our communities and within our cultures."
“They deprived them old fellas of their children, of keeping their culture alive by taking their children away," Serena Bulmer from the Mandingalbay Yidinji, Kuku Djungan and Guugu Yimithirr Nations of Queensland said. "As we speak my children are still there in that system. I am fighting for them. That’s the reason I came down here to Canberra.
“We are going to go back home to Yarrabah and face the department there. Being here with these old ladies has given us strength to keep fighting.”
While the Grandmothers' delegation met with the Minister for Indigenous Affairs, Nigel Scullion on May 24 and managed to secure commitments to organise regional meetings to progress the delegation’s demands, the Grandmothers are not holding their breath: "[G]iven the long history of broken promises from government, we will maintain pressure through protest until genuine Aboriginal community control is achieved," they said.
GMAR grandmother Helen Eason of the Gomeroi and Biripi Nations said: "This system and its white government is not the solution. We are the solution. Our voices, our people are the solution. Not a white government and not a white system that has controlled us and condemned us for years and years — and continues to fail us.
“We’ll be back here in six months and we are going to hold them to their word. Nigel we are coming for you.”