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Reconciliation: Are we there yet?

In the following article, Sister Daphne McKeough RSM, a member of the Institute’s Specific Issues Committee, Indigenous Concerns, asks: how far have we progressed towards reconciliation, both personally, and as a nation? Reconciliation Week, (May 27 – June 3) provides an opportunity to reflect critically on Australia’s history, and to work towards “closing the gap”.

Recently I was part of a group of Mercy sisters and others at a workshop led by two Aboriginal women, from Kempsey in northern New South Wales. Through the lens of the paintings of renowned Aboriginal artist Robert Campbell, the husband of one of the presenters, they shared the story of Aboriginal peoples’ culture and history, and described their involvement in their community to address some of the issues of disadvantage still faced by their people. The presentation was quite confronting, with its images and details of the restrictions and oppression the Aboriginal people experienced, and the racism that underpinned it. Someone asked them if the racism had decreased now. The women’s answer: “It may seem to on the surface, but underneath it is still strong.”

The end of May and Reconciliation Week is a time for taking stock of progress in reconciliation. We are reminded of significant dates in Australia’s history which provide strong symbols of the aspirations for reconciliation: National Sorry Day May 26, which honours the Stolen Generation and promotes further action on their outstanding claims; May 27, which is the anniversary of the 1967 Referendum, when Australians voted to change the constitution to include Aborigines in the census, and give the Commonwealth Government the right to make laws for them; and June 3, the anniversary of the High Court’s decision in the Mabo case, which acknowledged the prior occupation of Australia by Indigenous people.

Reconciliation is about addressing the divisions between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians – divisions that have been caused by a lack of respect, knowledge and understanding. It is about recognising the truth of Australia’s history, and moving forward together with a commitment to social justice, and building relationships based on mutual understanding, respect and trust. It calls for action at government level, with changes in policy and service delivery to overcome the disadvantages Indigenous people continue to face in this country. It is also a challenge for organisations and individuals.

Reconciliation has been “on the agenda” and in our national discourse now for well over a decade. But how far have we come, personally, and as a nation?

At the national level the current government has made a number of initiatives that would seem to be moving forward on addressing some of the problems. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, Tom Calma acknowledged this last week, in delivering the 2008 Social Justice Report. He said:

“I have been buoyed by the federal government’s decisive action to improve relationships with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples since the National Apology to the Stolen Generation in February last year… this year’s report is the first in my five years as commissioner where I can say two of the “must do” recommendations, being the formal endorsement of the United Nations Declaration on the rights of Indigenous People and the commitment to establishing a national healing body, have already been implemented by the government… And we are on the way towards establishing a new national representative body by the end of the year.”
Source: Australian Human Rights Commission

So whilst at the government level there has been some action, and there is much still to be done, what of the personal level?

In terms of personal action, in relation to bringing about change in government policy, we work to support the initiatives of Aboriginal people in lobbying for the action they see as necessary. They need broad assistance and support to build coalitions that can effectively influence government. But as we know, the disadvantage and discrimination faced by Indigenous people in Australia cannot be addressed through funding and policy change alone.

Underlying issues such as people’s lack of understanding and lack of mutual respect must also be tackled.

Reconciliation Australia has recently published the Australian Reconciliation Barometer,  a national research study that looks at the relationship between Indigenous and other Australians. It explores how we see and feel about each other, and how these perceptions affect progress towards reconciliation and closing the gap.

“Trust between Indigenous and non-Indigenous People is low.
Only 12% of Australians have a high level of trust for Indigenous people and
only 11% of Indigenous people have a high level of trust for non-Indigenous people.
64% of Non-Indigenous people reported trying to advance reconciliation in the previous year, but only 20% said they knew what to do to help disadvantaged Indigenous people.
Conversely, 99% of Indigenous people said they had taken steps to advance reconciliation
in the past twelve months and 82% knew what to do to help Indigenous people.”

So, there continues to be much work ahead.

As Reconciliation Week, May 27 – June 3, comes around, let us take time to look again at what we are doing personally to build our understanding and develop respect to underpin our action.

REFLECTION
A resource for our reflection is the ISMA Supplement to Morning and Evening Prayers of the Sisters of Mercy. DOWNLOAD THE PRAYER HERE.

FURTHER INFORMATION
May 25: Bringing Them Home Report (released 1997)

Australian Human rights Commission, Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Social Justice: Bringing them home: The “Stolen Children” report. Read the recommendations here.

May 26: National Sorry Day
National Sorry Day Committee. The Bringing Them Home Report recommended that a National Sorry Day be held each year on May 26 "to commemorate the history of forcible removals and its effects".

May 27: 1967 Referendum
This event is often referred to as the first stage of the reconciliation movement in Australia. For more information visit: National Archives of Australia and Reconciliation Australia.

May 27 – June 3, 2009: National Reconciliation Week
The theme for National Reconciliation Week 2009 is: “See the person, not the stereotype”. This theme links in with Reconciliation Australia’s national advertising campaign that challenges perceptions and debunks Indigenous stereotypes. For more information visit Reconciliation Australia and Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation (ANTaR).

ACTION
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From: Institute Specific Issues Committee, Indigenous Concerns (Sisters Rose Glennen, Anne McGuire and Daphne McKeough). The Committee warmly invites your response to the article or the issue.
Email: indigenous.concerns@mercy.org.au
Contact: Carmel Heagerty RSM, Institute Justice Co-ordinator
Email: Institute.Justice@mercy.org.au