The apology to the aborigines for the “stolen generations” may not have made headlines in North America, but it was a big deal here in Australia. We happened to be on the road when it happened, but I found a copy of “The Age” at a newsagent’s shop in Tasmania. The front page on Valentine’s Day was given over to five large photos of aboriginals, some in tears.

The headline read: Outburst of Emotion Echoes Across the Land. It was Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s moment, as he made the speech acknowledging the pain of the native people caused by government policy of legal kidnapping graphically illustrated by the film–“Rabbit Proof Fence.” When I saw the film I assumed that since the film was set in the thirties, the policy that formed its central conflict had disappeared years ago. Not so.

The policy was in place from 1910 until 1970. It affected up to 100,00 aboriginal children who were removed from their families and placed in church or state institutions or foster homes. According to verbal testimony taken for the 1995 inquiry “Bringing Them Home,” many of them were subjected to physical and/or sexual abuse.

The main motive seems to have been assimilation. Undoubtedly there were altruistic caregivers who were primarily concerned with the welfare of the native children, but the instant orphans were discouraged from speaking their own language or getting in touch with their families. The best of intentions could not compensate for that emotional amputation. Rudd’s speech carefully avoided the promise of monetary compensation, but he did declare the need to “remove a great stain from the nation’s soul.”

The apology may have been nothing more than a symbolic act, a way of assuaging the guilt of the white population of Australia, but it is a beginning. Even coming from a country with an awful history of native subjugation and despair, I have been shocked by media reports on conditions in aboriginal settlements here. Let us hope that Rudd’s vision will be translated into effective action that will trigger the changes that are so necessary to restore the pride and self-sufficiency of the aboriginal population. There are no easy solutions.

Treatment of the native population by the early English settlers is a sad story, horrific in the case of Tasmania. Arthur Phillip’s instructions were “to endeavor by any means to open an intercourse with the natives and to conciliate their affections….” But Phillip had come to settle “terra nullius” with ships full of convicts and soldiers, not the most enlightened of people. Early contact between natives and newcomers often led to conflict, sometimes to bloodshed.

Before the first year was out, even the thoughtful Captain Phillip had sanctioned kidnapping a native in order to learn the language and customs of the aboriginals in the area.

At least Arabanoo was a grown man.