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Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Do not forget

Remembrance Day has more than one point of reference - it can serve as a trigger not to forget.

Richard Franklin and Peter Lewis point out the dialectic of remembering and forgetting in their reflection on the signficiance of 11 November. In  Lest we forget a cruel act of dispossession they remind us that:

... an anniversary that has been forgotten is one that has even more relevance for understanding the ironies of Australian identity.

Eleven years before the hanging of Ned Kelly and 140 years ago this year, the Victorian colonial government passed an act ''To Provide for the Protection and Management of the Aboriginal Natives of Victoria'', more commonly known as the Aborigines Protection Act 1869.

This gave government control of where Aboriginal people could live, of how they would relate to Europeans, of their labour and earnings and of the ''care, custody and education'' of all Aboriginal children. It was this act that created the conditions for Aboriginal containment and assimilation, and its legal platform enabled policies that led to the stolen generations and stolen wages.

For us it raises an interesting question - why have we so rarely included this anniversary in our remembering?

After all, the Aboriginal soldiers who fought bravely at the very same battlefront that we rightly remember each and every November 11 were cruelly affected by the echoes of the 1869 act. This allowed them to be denied some of their earnings as soldiers and prevented access to Soldier Settlement land.

Despite the sacrifice of Aboriginal soldiers in the First World War, they still had their wages ''garnished'' and, unless they had official certificates saying they weren't Aboriginal, they could not access the Soldier Settlement scheme. In some cases, they returned to see their traditional homelands provided to non-indigenous soldiers as part of the scheme.

Even today the imprint of this act remains as a stain on our national character. Our ready forgetting of this anniversary is symptomatic of our failure as a nation to come to terms with our shared history.
This failure to remember is why the business of reconciliation remains unresolved, the ''close the gap promise'' remains dormant and the national apology is just another unfulfilled promise, as Government intentions to close the gap between the first and second peoples of Australia in child mortality, longevity, health and other wellbeing measures are swallowed up in bureaucracy.

Have we forgotten that ''sorry'' is the first step towards reconciliation, not the last?

Remembering the Aborigines Protection Act 1869 is important because it recalls a time when Aboriginal people were cut off from the rest of the community and from their land and culture.

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