Ever has it been that love knows not its own depth until the hour of separation. ~ Khalil Gibran (1883 - 1931)
The other day I heard the story of Leonie Pope on BBC Radio 4's Saturday Live hosted by Fi Glover. It is a truly horrific story that reinforces one of the messages of this blog. We must always be vigilant; we must never allow the acts of governments and their agents to go unscrutinised.
Leonie, now 35, was adopted by a Welsh family over 30 years ago. She grew up in Wales and now has a family of her own. It was only when she decided to trace her origins that the tragedy of her background emerged. She was the child of an Aboriginal mother who was tricked into giving her up for adoption; she was told instead that she was signing a paper about inoculation. The crime was aggravated when Leonie's mother asked where her baby was and the nurses told her that her daughter had died. When she asked for the body so she could bury it, she was told that it had already been disposed of. And the lying went on when Leonie arrive in Wales; her adoptive parents were informed that her natural mother had abandoned her in the hospital.
Leonie was one of seven children, each of whom were taken away from this Aboriginal mother. And sadly only one of them succeeded in finding her before she died.
Children taken away from parents
This story is not unusual. Starting in 1910 but continuing to the 1970s – I'll repeat that, the 1970s – 100,000 Aboriginal children were taken away from their parents and raised in church – I'll repeat that, in church – or state institutions or were fostered or adopted by white parents. Leonie was lucky because most of these children received little education, many of them were abused, and most ended up in low-grade domestic or agricultural work. The story of another family treated in this manner is told in the film Rabbit-Proof Fence and in
the book by Doris Pilkington on which it is based.
These children were all victims of a policy implemented, not only by the Federal government, but also by individual Australian states, to take Aboriginal and mixed-race children away from their parents and assimilate them into European society. The emotional damage has been devastating. Between 10% and 30% of Aboriginal children were removed in this way and many have fallen victim to depression, alcohol and drug abuse; and some have resorted to delinquency and violence. And the families and the societies from which they were stolen have never recovered.
The appalling consequences of this policy were revealed in a national inquiry, Bringing them Home, published in 1997. In the face of the evidence, the Australian government has offered neither apology nor compensation to those affected, many of whom who are still alive and living with the consequences. Indeed, a former minister for Aboriginal affairs has even denied the existence of these people, while government lawyers continue to argue that the removal of the children was done for their own good.
Now, at last some progress is being made. A report issued in 2002, Restoring Identity, has been welcomed by ministers in four of Australia's states.
Reluctant to show remorse
I can barely control my emotions as I recount this sorry tale. These actions were carried out by a democratically-elected government in a country that proudly calls itself the "Lucky Country". A government of a wealthy state, an important member of the free world, not only behaved in this manner, but is reluctant to show remorse for such gross violation of human rights.
The politicians involved could claim that they reflected the mood of the electorate, many of whom – no doubt – thought of Aboriginals in the same way as Americans in the Wild West thought of Native Americans – as a nuisance to be disposed of. And for much of the period of the policy, Aboriginals did not have the right to vote and had no representation. (They were given the vote in 1965 but, even now, there are no Aboriginal elected representatives.)
Leonie was not taken from her mother by politicians, but by nurses and doctors and social workers. And these people happily lied to a woman who had gone though the twin emotional traumas of birth and bereavement. In their privileged position, they had power over this mother and they abused it. Such callousness is the stock-in-trade of functionaries charged with carrying out policy. Habituated by the daily grind of working through a case load, irritated by the emotional reaction of those effected by decisions they are powerless to challenge, these functionaries treat people as objects.
We must always being vigilant. Civil rights are very fragile. Never forget that, in another time and another place, some of those 'objects' could be you and yours.