Survivors of Australia's Stolen Generations talk about breaking the cycle of intergenerational trauma
Australia and Canada have a shared and shameful history of attempting to assimilate Indigenous children by forcibly taking them from their homes.
At Healing Our Spirit Worldwide (HOSW) in Vancouver, David Wragge and Tony Hansen spoke about being survivors of Australia's “Stolen Generations."
Both now work with Australia's Healing Foundation, a government-funded group with a mandate to help Australian Indigenous communities heal from the trauma.
From 1910 to 1970, approximately one in every three Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children were taken from their families. Those children were put into so-called boarding schools or adopted to non-Indigenous families.
Many suffered physical, mental, emotional, and sexual abuse. They had their identities stripped from them down to their core – their names were replaced by numbers.
This was done, according to the Australian government at the time, in the name of “protecting" them.
But for David, this “protection" was a life sentence. He was taken when he was only three years old and the 15 years he spent at a mission became a life sentence due to the abuse he experienced.
He said he was isolated from his community, traditions, and family. His parents had no visitation rights, and had to apply to see him once every few months.
The negative impact on the Stolen Generations is stark and ongoing. Indigenous Australians are known to have worse health outcomes than non-Indigenous Australians, while Stolen Generation survivors have even worse health outcomes due to intergenerational trauma. Many of those issues extend to their children and grandchildren.
Anecdotally, David said out of 100 of his friends, approximately a third either died young, are incarcerated, or have a substance use disorder.
The historical and ongoing trauma inflicted on the Stolen Generations and their families is well documented.
Bringing Them Home, the Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families was released in 1997. The inquiry received nearly 800 submissions from Indigenous people and groups, churches, and the government. It found the actions of the government amounted to genocide.
Despite the report, David and Tony say they are fighting an uphill battle against public opinion. There are no treaties in Australia, and Indigenous peoples make up just three per cent of the population. They rely solely on the public at large to help pass legislation to mitigate their trauma.
Australia is currently in a referendum campaign to enshrine Indigenous voices into the constitution by establishing a body called the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice. The Voice, quite literally, will give Indigenous peoples representation in Parliament, with Indigenous people chosen to speak for them by their communities. The referendum will take place Oct. 14, and David said if the referendum fails, it is a clear sign that racism is still alive and well in Australia.
Tony said while there is good work being done at the community level in tackling systemic racism and educating the public about the historic and current injustices against Indigenous peoples, they are unfortunately being “done in silos." Despite that, there is ongoing progress in building relationships with governments and allied organizations.
David added there needs to be real leadership at the federal level to address these issues, particularly when it comes to education. He said not enough is being taught about the Stolen Generations in schools. All the while Captain James Cook is still taught as the person who “discovered" Australia despite the fact Indigenous people have existed on the continent for more than 65,000 years.
While family matriarchs are beginning to lead the way towards Indigenizing health care at the local level, there is still a massive deficit in funding, and according to Tony, it is an all too common scene to see families gathered around grave sites.
Despite the desperate need, there are some bright spots that highlight the resiliency of Indigenous peoples in Australia. David said local health authorities have been established with successful results.
During their time at HOSW, Tony and David noted that First Nations and Indigenous people in Canada have made far more progress towards reconciliation than they have in Australia. They point to acknowledgements of wrongdoing by the government, funding supports, and the public awareness of what happened and continues to happen in Canada.
Both said that for true reconciliation to take place in Australia, it will require truth and justice. They are committed to working to create a better future for the generations to come.