Issues – The Stolen Generation, The Apology, Reparation and Compensation


While advances have been made in the past couple of years, there is still along way to go before the unique needs of Indigenous people are recognised and true reconciliation is achieved in Australia. The fact remains that on nearly all social indicators, Aboriginals in Australia fall drastically below the norm. So much so that, even thought they live in one of the world’s richest nations the statistics for Aboriginals are more closely aligned with ‘Third World’ nations. These facts are not just coincidences, but are as a result of past and present problems with the commitment to and recognition of Aboriginal culture and needs.

In this part of the Module we take a look at the ongoing debates in Australian society in which the perceived rights of the Aboriginal community clash with the traditional held views of the ‘white’ population. The debate includes the issues surrounding the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, The Stolen Generations, The National Apology, Compensation and Native Title.

Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People

‘Human rights do not dispossess people. Human rights do not marginalize people. Human rights do not cause their poverty and they don’t cause the gaps in the life expectancy and other life outcomes. It is the denial of rights that is the largest contributor to these things. The value of human rights is not in their existence; it is in their implementation. The standards have been set. It is up to us to meet them.’

Prof Mick Dodson, Australian of the Year 2009 –


Examples of indigenous groups around the world include Aboriginals in Australia and Canada, the Maori people in New Zealand and Native American Indians in the USA. Estimates show that there are more than 370 million Indigenous people in 70 countries around the world. Indigenous peoples are unique in respect of their customs, cultures, ways of relating to other people and to the environment. They are the people with the earliest known historical connection to their country. However, historically these cultures have not been protected and their rights have been violated. They are usually recognised as one of the most disadvantaged groups in their own countries. As a result Indigenous peoples around the world have sought recognition of their identities, their ways of life and their right to traditional lands, territories and natural resources.

The international community now recognises this fact and since the 1980s the U.N has been working on improving the situation for Indigenous communities from a rights-based perspective. The culmination of this work happened in September 2007, when the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was adopted by the UN General Assembly. It was adopted by a majority that included 143 states in favour, 4 votes against (Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States) and 11 abstentions (Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Burundi, Colombia, Georgia, Kenya, Nigeria, Russian Federation, Samoa and Ukraine).

The Declaration

A non-binding text in law, the Declaration sets out the individual and collective rights of indigenous peoples, as well as their rights to culture, identity, language, employment, health, education and other issues. The Declaration itself has 46 Articles which outline the specific rights and needs of Indigenous people. It also includes specific ways in which governments must play a role in protecting the rights of Indigenous people within their own state. Some of the rights set down in the Declaration include:

  • The right to full enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms individually and collectively
  • The right to self-determination (i.e. govern themselves). Indigenous people have the right to look after their own economic, social and cultural interests as well as having the right to self-government in matters relating to local affairs
  • The right to live in freedom and security, protected from any act of genocide or violence, which specifically includes forcibly removing children from one group to another group
  • The right not to be forced into losing their culture. Many indigenous cultures have faced destruction by non-indigenous populations throughout history: the Declaration forbids this. The Declaration also states that governments should not only prevent such acts in the future, but also provide fair compensation for any such acts which happened in the past
  • The right to lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned or occupied. States shall give legal recognition and protection to these lands. Indigenous people shall not be forcibly removed from their lands or territories

What is Significant about the Declaration?

Many of the rights in the Declaration require new approaches to global issues, such as development, self-determination and multicultural democracy. Countries will need to take a participatory approach in their interactions with indigenous peoples. This requires meaningful consultations and partnerships. The Declaration emphasizes the rights of indigenous peoples to maintain and strengthen their own institutions, cultures and traditions. It also prohibits discrimination against indigenous peoples and promotes their full and effective participation in all matters that concern them. It promotes their right to remain distinct and to pursue their own visions of economic and social development. It is hoped that the recognition and respect of indigenous cultures will close the social and economic gap between them and the wider population.

However, it is also important to note that while indigenous customs are protected by the Declaration, this is not to the detriment of fundamental human rights set out in other human rights declarations. For example, Article 34 of the Declaration states that ‘Indigenous peoples have the right to promote, develop and maintain their… distinctive customs, spirituality, traditions, procedures, practices and, in the cases where they exist, juridical systems or customs’ but must do so ‘in accordance with international human rights standards’. In other words, while the Declaration protects Indigenous people’s culture and way of life, this protection is not unlimited – respect for universal human rights still takes precedence.

Australia and the Declaration

When it comes to indigenous rights Australia’s history of violations is stark. From the time of the very first settlers up until the 1970s Aboriginal Australians have been thrown off their homelands and children have been forcibly removed from their families. These children are now referred to as the ‘Stolen Generations’ in which it is estimated that between 1 in 3 and 1 in 10 Aboriginal children were taken away. Low education and employment rates still persist in the community and there is a 17-year life expectancy gap between indigenous and non-indigenous people in Australia. In 2007 Australia was one of the original countries to vote against the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. This decision was a massive blow against the fight for equality for Aboriginal Australians. The then-Howard government claimed that the Declaration would promote traditional, customary law above national law. The main arguments against signing the declaration were around self-determination, customary-law and land rights.


‘In making this formal statement of support, the federal government is committing to a framework which fully respects Indigenous peoples’ rights and creates the opportunity for all Australians to be truly equal.’

Social Justice Commissioner, Tom Calma

Australia can’t go back to the United Nations to sign the Declaration due to their initial vote against it in 2007. However, in April 2009, the Australian Government made a statement in support of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. This move has been welcomed and acknowledged as a significant step forward from a human rights perspective in the pursuit of justice and equality for Aboriginal Australians. This new commitment to equality is hoped to help in the campaign around issues which persist in Australia in relation to Native Title and Compensation for the ‘Stolen Generations’.

Further Information about the Declaration:

The Stolen Generation

‘We may go home, but we cannot relive our childhoods. We may reunite with our mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, aunties, uncles, communities, but we cannot relive the 20, 30, 40 years that we spent without their love and care, and they cannot undo the grief and mourning they felt when we were separated from them. We can go home to ourselves as Aboriginals, but this does not erase the attacks inflicted on our hearts, minds, bodies and souls, by caretakers who thought their mission was to eliminate us as Aboriginals’

Link-Up (New South Wales)


From 1869 up until the 1970s the Australian government had an official policy of forcibly removing Aboriginal children of mixed race from their families. These children became known as the ‘Stolen Generations’. In the 1990’s an inquiry entitled ‘Bringing Them Home’ was conducted by the Australian Human Rights Commission into the separation and treatment of Aboriginal children who were forcibly removed from their families. The report estimates that between one in three and one in ten Aboriginal children were separated from their families and communities during this time.


‘Mr Neville [the Chief Protector of Western Australia] holds the view that within one hundred years the pure black will be extinct. But the half-caste problem is increasing every year. Therefore their idea is to keep the pure blacks segregated and absorb the half-castes into the white population. Perhaps it will take one hundred years, perhaps longer, but the race is dying.’

Extract from an article in Brisbane’s Telegraph newspaper in May 1937

Past Australian governments removed children in response to what they saw as the growing problem of increasing numbers of children from mixed white and Aboriginal parents. The purpose of taking children from their families was to absorb or assimilate children with mixed ancestry into the non-Indigenous community. Children were put into religious or state run institutions, fostered or adopted. Many spent time in more than one institution or foster family. Later, many were sent out to work for little or no money. Some moved from institution or foster family to detention centre or psychiatric hospital, therefore repeating the cycle of institutionalisation. The treatment and conditions that the children endured have been widely reported as substandard and in some cases inhumane. This further contributed to the trauma experienced by most children once they were taken away from their families.

The Experience

The ‘Bringing Them Home’ Inquiry researched and collected the stories of hundreds of Aboriginal people and compiled a record of common experiences as told by the people themselves. The report was published in 1997. Mick Dodson, an Aboriginal leader and rights advocate, was the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner at the time and co-wrote the report. His leadership has been essential in getting the voices of the ‘Stolen Generations’ heard and recognised. The stories recorded in the inquiry gave an insight into the conditions in which the ‘Stolen Generations’ were forced to live in. Some common themes included in the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission Report are:

  • Being discouraged from family contact – ‘I remember this woman saying to me, ‘Your mother’s dead, you’ve got no mother now. That’s why you’re here with us’. Then about two years after that my mother and my mother’s sister came to The Bungalow but they weren’t allowed to visit us because they were black.’
  • Being taught to reject their Aboriginality – ‘I didn’t know any Aboriginal people at all, none at all. I was placed in a white family and I was just – I was white. I never knew, I never accepted myself to being a black person until – I don’t know if you ever really do accept yourself as being … How can you be proud of being Aboriginal after all the humiliation and the anger and the hatred you have? It’s unbelievable how much you can hold inside.’
  • Institutional conditions were very harsh – ‘There was no food, nothing. We was all huddled up in a room like a little puppy dog on the floor. Sometimes at night we’d cry with hunger. We had to scrounge in the town dump, eating old bread, smashing tomato sauce bottles, licking them. Half of the time the food we got was from the rubbish dump.’
  • Education was often very basic – ‘I wanted to be a nurse, only to be told that I was nothing but an immoral black lubra, and I was only fit to work on cattle and sheep properties.’
  • Excessive physical punishments were common – ‘Dormitory life was like living in hell. It was not a life. The only things that sort of come out of it was how to work, how to be clean, you know and hygiene. That sort of thing. But we got a lot of bashings.’
  • The children were at risk of sexual abuse – ‘I ran away because my foster father used to tamper with me and I’d just had enough. I went to the police but they didn’t believe me. So she [foster mother] just thought I was a wild child and she put me in one of those hostels and none of them believed me – I was the liar. So I’ve never talked about it to anyone. I don’t go about telling lies, especially big lies like that.’
  • Some found happiness – ‘We were all happy together, us kids. We had two very wonderful old ladies that looked after us. It [Colebrook, South Australia] wasn’t like an institution really. It was just a big happy family. Y’know they gave us good teaching, they encouraged us to be no different to anybody else.’

Was it Genocide?

In 1948 the United Nations made Genocide an international crime, punishable under the Convention on the prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Article 2 of the Genocide Convention defines genocide as:

“Any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

  • (a) Killing members of the group;
  • (b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
  • (c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
  • (d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
  • (e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”

Whether the actions behind the formation of the Stolen Generation was an act of genocide is highly contested in Australia. The ‘Bringing them home’ report found that the policy of forcibly removing Aboriginal children fell within the international legal definition of genocide as the crime of genocide is not restricted to the immediate physical destruction of a group. However, some commentators disbelieve the findings of the ‘Bringing Them Home’ report saying they are exaggerated. Others insist that there was actually no official policy in any state or territory at any time, for the systematic removal of Aboriginal children. Another argument put forward is that what was done was not bad enough to constitute genocide. However, the policy of forcibly removing Aboriginal children was originally carried out with the aim of ‘breeding out’ the Aboriginal race in Australia and this is the main intention or outcome of genocide.


‘Lots of white kids do get taken away, but that’s for a reason – not like us. We just got taken away because we was black kids, I suppose – half-caste kids. If they wouldn’t like it, they shouldn’t do it to Aboriginal families’.

Member of the Stolen Generation, South Australia

Some people have argued that the removal of children from their families was for their own good- to protect them from neglect or abuse. However in the case of the ‘Stolen Generations’ there was no investigation into the treatment of children within their families prior to their removal. They were taken away simply because of a government policy, which supported the removal of children on the basis of race. The psychological effects are still being felt among the victims of this regime. The ‘Bringing Them Home’ report made 54 recommendations on how to start the healing process for the Aboriginal community.

While some of the recommendations have been met, the Australian government is still under pressure to implement all the recommendations outlined in the report over ten years ago and to whole-heartedly face up to their responsibilities towards the ‘Stolen Generations’. In recent years, notably since the election of a new Labour-led government, some progress has been made in meeting the recommendations, including a national apology. However, the facts still remain- Aboriginals who were removed are less likely to have completed a secondary education, three times as likely to have acquired a police record and were twice as likely to use drugs.

For more information on the ‘Stolen Generation’ check out:

The Apology

On the 13th of February 2008, the Prime Minister of Australia, Kevin Rudd, made a national apology saying ‘Sorry’ to the Aboriginal community for past wrong doings inflicted upon them by the state. It came after over a decade of campaigning by Aboriginal activists for the recognition the victims of the Stolen Generations deserved. The apology was welcomed by the majority of the indigenous and non-indigenous populations in Australia and was marked as an historical day for all.

Aboriginal Responses to the Apology

‘I thought I was being taken just for a few days. I can recall seeing my mother standing on the side of the road with her head in her hands, crying, and me in the black FJ Holden wondering why she was so upset. A few hundred words can’t fix this all but it’s an important start and it’s a beginning’

Lyn Austin, chairwoman of Stolen Generations Victoria

‘I am inspired by this apology as an act of true reconciliation towards Indigenous Australia.’

Mick Dodson, co-chairman of Reconciliation Australia

‘It takes courage to apologise. It takes courage to forgive. It takes courage to begin a journey when the destination is imagined but not known. On behalf of the nation, parliament has recognised the truth of my brother Mick’s words to Prime Minister Howard–that the Bringing Them Home report contains the ‘saddest of all stories’. We know these stories are as true as they are sad. Parliament has now accepted the complicity of Australian governments in a misguided attempt to destroy our people. We welcome Prime Minister Rudd’s commitment to ensure that those ‘saddest of all stories’ will not be repeated in the future.’

Patrick Dodson, Director of the Kimberly Institute

‘Today is an historic day. It’s the day our leaders – across the political spectrum – have chosen dignity, hope and respect as the guiding principles for the relationship with our first nations’ peoples’.

Tom Calma, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission

Non-Indigenous responses to the Apology

When Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said the words ‘I am sorry’ a wave of emotion and a process of healing began across the nation.’

Brett Solomon, executive director of community advocacy organisation ‘GetUp’

‘The whole sorry thing is really to satisfy the white population, not the black population. Until whites give back to black their nationhood, they can never claim their own, no matter how many flags they fly.’

John Pilger, expat Australian journalist

‘If someone can prove to me that there were stolen generations, I could change my mind… The children in most cases were given up by parents or guardians who were unable to look after them.’

Barbara Witte


The ‘Bringing Them Home’ report recommended that the first step to healing past wounds is the acknowledgment of the truth behind what happened and the delivery of an apology to the ‘Stolen Generations’. Previous governments had refused to make a national apology. Former Prime Minister John Howard refused to apologise to indigenous people on the basis that:

‘Australians of this generation should not be required to accept guilt and blame for past actions and policies over which they had no control.’


‘In my heart I feel there is a real need for [the apology]… For my family, it allows some kind of healing and forgiveness to take place where there is less anger and bitterness in the hearts of people.’

Cathy Freeman, Aboriginal athlete and Olympic gold medallist

The word ‘sorry’ itself is important and symbolic as it holds special meaning in Aboriginal culture. In many Aboriginal communities, sorry is an adapted English word used to describe the rituals surrounding death (Sorry Business). Sorry, in these contexts, is also often used to express empathy or sympathy rather than responsibility. It was also felt that an apology was important to officially recognise the past regime of the Australian government, which some non-indigenous Australians refute or deny ever took place. As well as the need for official recognition an apology was an admittance that the actions by past Australian government towards the Aboriginal community were wrong and have had long-term ill effects.

The Speech

Under a new Labour government, on the 13th of February 2008 the Prime Minister of Australia Kevin Rudd apologised to the Aboriginal community for past wronging doings inflicted upon them by the state, in forcibly removing children from their families.

Throughout the speech Prime Minister Rudd acknowledged and reflected on the actions and mistreatments inflicted on the indigenous people of Australia at the hands of past governments:

‘For the pain, suffering and hurt of these Stolen Generations, their descendants and for their families left behind, we say sorry.

To the mothers and the fathers, the brothers and the sisters, for the breaking up of families and communities, we say sorry.

And for the indignity and degradation thus inflicted on a proud people and a proud culture, we say sorry.’

The apology from the Australian Government to the Stolen Generations is an important step towards achieving the overarching objective of reconciliation. It also aims to close the 17-year life expectancy gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous children. Rudd also acknowledges the inequalities persistent in Australia and the need to close this gap. In the apology he states:

‘We today take this first step by acknowledging the past and laying claim to a future that embraces all Australians. A future where this Parliament resolves that the injustices of the past must never, never happen again. A future where we harness the determination of all Australians, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, to close the gap that lies between us in life expectancy, educational achievement and economic opportunity.’

However, while the apology was overwhelmingly welcomed, some have reflected that actions speak louder than words. Many still believe that it is only through a commitment to fair compensation and consultation with the Aboriginal community that the words expressed in the apology will take on real meaning.

‘The word ‘sorry’ doesn’t come near what [my father] went through. They can apologise in a thousand different ways without saying sorry. Actions speak louder than words.’

Norman Stewart, son of a Stolen Generations member

Further information about the Apology

Compensation / Reparation

‘I’ve been a victim and I’ve suffered and I’ll suffer until the day I die for what I’ve never had and what I can never have. I just have to get on with my life but compensation would help. It doesn’t take the pain away. It doesn’t take the suffering away. It doesn’t take the memories away. It doesn’t bring my mother back. But it has to be recognised.’

Victim of the Stolen Generation


From a human rights framework, victims have the right to reparation if their human rights have been violated by a state. Article 8 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) states that:

“Everyone has the right to an effective remedy by the competent national tribunals for acts violating the fundamental rights granted him by the Constitution or by law.”

As part of the ‘Bringing Them Home’ report recommendations were made in regards to how the Australian government should address the past wrong -doings inflicted on the Aboriginal people. The report concluded that the government has a responsibility to respond with reparation to those affected. ‘Reparation’ involves replenishment of a previously inflicted loss by the criminal to the victim and is the appropriate response to gross violations of human rights. According to international legal principles, reparation has five parts which include:

  1. Acknowledgment of the truth and an apology;
  2. Guarantees that these human rights won’t be breached again;
  3. Returning what has been lost as much as possible (known as restitution);
  4. Rehabilitation;
  5. Compensation.

The Issue of Compensation

While some of the recommendations of the report have been met, like the apology and promise to never let such atrocities happen again, some remain controversial and unfulfilled. The most notable of these is the question of compensation for members of the ‘Stolen Generations’. While many believe it is the responsibility of the Australian government to compensate victims, the government itself believes it should not have to take responsibility for the wrong doings of past generations. However, much of the harm inflicted upon Aboriginal people is covered under Australian law. Therefore, it is argued that like any crime, the victims of the ‘Stolen Generations’ should be compensated.

Australian of the Year and Indigenous Australian leader Mick Dodson argues that: ‘while the suggestion of compensation is controversial for some people, most of the categories of harm for which people would be claiming compensation already exist under Australian law – such as physical, sexual and emotional abuse, economic loss and pain and suffering. Money cannot bring back the years of lost childhood, but justice demands that stolen children should be treated equally by the law.’

Compensation in Canada

Following the national apology, the Australian government still takes the view that compensation to individual victims of the stolen generation is not necessary. This is in direct contrast to a decision made by the Canadian government in recent years to provide members of the Aboriginal community in Canada with a multi-billion compensation package for victims who experienced similar atrocities to those inflicted on Aboriginals in Australia. However, the Australian Government insists that instead of a national compensation fund, money should be used to address the serious levels of disadvantage still experienced by the Aboriginal community in Australia. While the need for further assistance to the Aboriginal community is clear, it does not take away the fact that the Stolen Generations are victims of acts viewed as serious crimes in Australian law and these acts have had long-term negative impacts.

Bruce Trevorrow

Bruce Trevorrow is one member of the Stolen Generation who successfully won compensation from the government of South Australia. He was 13 months old when his family admitted him to hospital for treatment for stomach pains. When he was admitted it was recorded that he had no parents and was subsequently fostered by a white couple, without the knowledge of his parents. In 2007, Trevorrow won a court judgment that his alcoholism, depression and inability to hold down a job were attributable to his having been “stolen” as a child. He was awarded $525,000 Australian dollars by the courts after a ten-year battle. Unfortunately, he did not get a chance to enjoy his success, as he died less than a year after the ruling. The battle for compensation and recognition in the courts can be a long and stressful one and eventually took its toll on the hard-battling Trevorrow. For this reason many have called for a national compensation fund to be set up to compensate victims of the Stolen Generation in a dignified and fair manner. It would also lessen the need for lawyers to get involved and reduce the psychological stress of victims.

Compensation in Tasmania

‘There’s been quite a bit of anger and sadness at times and sadly I took to the drink to try and forget – I became a loner. If it hadn’t been for my wife, I’d still be in the gutter… I’m handling things better now because I know eventually,… when we’ve got our compensation, that we can enjoy things as a family again.’

Eddie Thomas, Stolen Generation victim

The only state government in Australia to offer compensation to members of the Stolen Generation to date is the Tasmanian government. It made a commitment in 2006 to compensate Aboriginal Tasmanians who were removed from their families. A $5 million fund was created to provide payments to eligible members of the Stolen Generations and their children. Eddie Thomas, who was a baby when he was removed from his family, is one of the victims included in the scheme. To him compensation is an acknowledgement that his removal was wrong. It is also a helping hand in overcoming the psychological impact his removal has had on his life.

Should Compensation be granted to the ‘Stolen Generation’?

‘What’s done is done. You can’t turn back the clock…Countering the wisdom of the proverbs is the conviction that even the past can be changed. When the misdeeds of the past are brought to light, when the perpetrators and their heirs confess and ask forgiveness, when we do penance and mend our ways and pay the price- then the crime committed has a new setting and a new significance’

Sven Lindqvist

In his book ‘Terra Nullius’ Swedish author Sven Lindqvist discusses the history of Aboriginal Australians since colonisation. He explores the question of whether they should be compensated for the past atrocities carried out against them. The majority of the current population in Australia are not the ones who directly carried out the atrocities against the Aboriginal people. The current government is not the government who enacted the policy of forcibly removing Aboriginal children so why should they be held responsible by paying out compensation? This is a hotly debated question in Australia and internationally.

Whether the people who carried out the policy are alive or not is not important. What is important is that there are generations of Aboriginal people who were removed from their families for no other reason other than that they had Aboriginal blood. The lasting effects have been enormous and still today statistics show that the Stolen Generations have lower education standards, higher problems with mental health and a higher than average record of drug use. What the Stolen Generations experienced were crimes according to Australian law and these crimes were enacted and carried out by the Australian State. Therefore, according to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), the perpetrator of the crime –the Australian State- should compensate its victims- the Stolen Generations.

Further info about reparation / compensation: