Archived News Item

Taking time to understand

In this fortnight’s contribution from the Specific Issues Committee, Indigenous Concerns, Anne McGuire writes about her friendship with a young Indigenous woman called Lisa. Anne challenges readers to take time to consider the experiences of Indigenous people and to reflect on our own understandings and responses. Also, find out about a recent initiative announced by Brother Kelvin Canavan FMS (Executive Director of Schools in the Sydney Archdiocese) to support Indigenous students and their families.

In the article “Sorry Business – The Road to the Apology”, published in the March 2008 issue of The Monthly magazine, writer Robert Manne recalls a conversation with the novelist Alex Miller. In this conversation Miller recounted that he thought “people who claimed that they hadn’t known, until relatively recently, that Aboriginal children had been forcibly removed from their families were lying.” (p. 22)

Like many Australians, Manne asserts, it was a chapter of recent Australian history he himself had not “taken the time to understand.”

Anne and Lisa
In the mid 1980s, whilst living in rural NSW, I encountered a ‘30 something’ Koori woman, we shall call Lisa. We became mates. As time unfolded, we entered each others hearts and homes, and our families met and welcomed each other on a number of occasions.

As our friendships grew, we learned that in 1971, Lisa’s first born son had been removed from the home of Lisa’s aunt and uncle. Lisa herself had been in hospital following the birth of her second child. A neighbour’s single complaint about a crying child had been enough for the then “NSW Child Welfare Department” to summarily remove the infant from his family. Due to NSW Government policy, all details concerning such children were suppressed. Despite years of searching and pleading, Lisa was refused any access or information as to Andy’s whereabouts.

Lisa’s next sighting of her son would be 13 years later in the Children’s Court in Sydney. The boy had been fostered to a non-Indigenous, childless couple in outer Sydney. When he reached his rebellious teenage years, he had become, in their words, “uncontrollable”. Finally, his participation in a “car-jacking” brought him to the attention of the police.

Subsequently, Andy appeared before a far sighted magistrate who asked presciently, “Where is this boy’s natural mother?”

In The Monthly article, Manne notes: “the grief of the children who were taken from the  warmth of family, and of those from whom their children were taken, was unfathomably deep…” (p. 30)

It was this grief that our family tried to fathom in Lisa as she struggled with her “demons” over many years.

What is of significant interest, in the light of this poignant story, is the “historical denial” which the last Federal Government fostered, to diminish the importance of the stories of the “Stolen Generations.” Manne legitimately asks: “Why had so much political energy been devoted to the task of denying that in recent Australian history a very serious racial injustice had taken place.” (p. 26)

Why indeed?

In the lead up to, and in the days following Prime Minister Rudd’s apology to the Stolen Generations, the media consistently reported that 40 per cent of Australians were opposed to his action (“Talkback Backlash”, Sydney Morning Herald, February 14, 2008. p. 5). This statistic rattled around in my head for days. In the course of my work in Catholic education, I wondered which of the people around me were counted in that 40 per cent. It didn’t take long!

On February 29, the Executive Director of Schools in the Archdiocese of Sydney, Brother Kelvin Canavan FMS cited the fact that retention rates for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students were a “national disgrace”. In a letter to School Principals, Brother Kelvin announced an important initiative that full scholarships were to be extended to ALL Indigenous students in Catholic systemic schools in the archdiocese, beginning in Term 1, 2008. Further, any fees already paid this year were to be reimbursed.

Following this announcement, a number of ‘comments’ have surfaced, concerning the identity and legitimacy of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students. Whatever the motivation for these comments, it seems clear that many of us still have a long way to go in taking the time to understand.

Almost ten years ago, Mick Dodson observed:
“Recognising that we all have a little part, that we all share the story, that we’re all accountable to the story that we’re all responsible to the story. We acknowledge the terrible parts of the story, we recognise the truth of it so we can go forward with optimism, celebrating our future, feeling secure in it, not excluding any one of us, regardless of how small our part is in the dance, how short our verse is in the song, how much of a small snippet we contribute to the rich portrait of that history. We’re in it together and we must ensure that those who resist and deny the story are overcome by our strength of purpose, our unity, and our crying desire for a nation that’s justly reconciled, that is mature enough to accept the nastiness of our histories, that is willing as equals, to go forward and build something that embraces every little bit of every little story that tells our history.” (Talkin’ Up Reconciliation Conference, Wollongong, 1999)

Some questions:

  • What is it in us which can perceive generosity towards another group as unfair?
  • If our society can embrace and demand compensation for the loss of a job, a limb or a livelihood, why is compensation for the loss of families so hard to embrace?
  • What if you are in the staff or community room, or in conversation with a family member and you hear the following: “She doesn’t look Aboriginal – she’s probably only half caste.” What will you say?
  • Could it be as Anais Nin suggests: "We don’t see things as they are; we see them as we are.”

After an initial ‘re-membering’ with his family, Andy continually struggled to understand why his mother didn’t “just come and get me!” He became immersed in drugs and antisocial behaviour, and contracted AIDS. He died in 2002, one year after his mother. She was 48, he was 31. 


  • “Sorry Business: The Road to the Apology”, by Robert Manne in The Monthly, March 2008.
  • Talkin’ Up Reconciliation Conference, Wollongong (1999), Challenging Racism in Schools Workbook – A Resource for High School Teachers Compiled by Sarah Tighe- Ford, Produced by Action for World Develpopment (AWD) NSW Inc., 2000.

The Social Action Office (SAO) founded by the Conference of Leaders of Religious Institutes, Queensland has launched an e-card urging the government to allocate the additional $460 million (the amount recommended in the Oxfam CLOSETHEGAP campaign) in this year’s federal budget to set up the action plan and programs to achieve better health outcomes for Indigenous Australians. Government departments are working on budget submissions for the 2008-2009 budget now. Now is the time to show your support for the apology of February 13 and urge the Government to carry forward their promises. There are two cards – one to the Treasurer, Wayne Swan, and the other to the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs, Jenny Macklin. Click here to access the e-card from the SAO website.

Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice.

Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation (ANTaR)

Institute of Sisters of Mercy of Australia: Indigenous Concerns

Social Action Office

Rose Marie Glennen RSM is a Sister of Mercy currently working at Centacare in the Northern Territory. Her ministry involves some work with mission facilitation and administration. Rose says, “My interest in the area of Indigenous concerns springs from a long-standing concern for Indigenous people and particularly now when I work with an organisation with about one-third of our employees Indigenous people. With the Intervention now operating in some areas of the Territory, we have some different concerns for the people living in the area particularly in the remote communities. I hope by my work with the committee, greater awareness and understanding will be found among the many people who read our articles.”

Anne McGuire spent over ten years living in Indigenous communities. Her interest began in the late 1970s, living and working with the late Father Ted Kennedy in Redfern. Since then Anne has worked on Bathurst Island, Northern Territory, Wilcannia and Kempsey in New South Wales. She has long-standing, dearly held relationships with many Indigenous friends and believes that “justice delayed is justice denied”. Anne is an educator in the Archdiocese of Sydney working principally in the area of Religious Education, supporting primary school teachers in their own faith development; and their implementation of the Archdiocesan RE Curriculum.

Mary Quinn RSM has been involved with Indigenous people particularly in education. Mary taught in Bowraville and Kempsey in New South Wales where the sisters were very involved with Indigenous people. Mary has also worked in welfare, and of particular note, is her work in supporting Indigenous parents and assisting them to address issues related to their children.

As a Sister of Mercy, Moira Truelson RSM has had a long and strong involvement with Indigenous Australians and is passionate in her pursuit of justice in their regard. Her broad experience as an educator of youth, of adults in faith formation, and as Congregation Leader of the Rockhampton Sisters of Mercy has enabled her to support and initiate many projects in central Queensland and beyond, including research. Recognising and addressing the issue of racism from a personal and communal aspect has been a long-standing endeavour.

From: Specific Issues Committee, Indigenous Concerns (Anne McGuire, Sisters Rose Glennen, Mary Quinn and Moira Truelson). The Committee warmly invites your response to the article or the issue.

Contact: Carmel Heagerty RSM, Institute Justice Co-ordinator