The Guardian 7 December, 2005

Canada to pay stolen victims

Kerrynne Liddle (Koori Mail)

"Just hang in there, Keep at it, and it will happen." These words of encouragement for Australia’s Indigenous peoples to continue the fight for compensation and reparation for the Stolen Generations came from the head of Canada’s multi-million-dollar Aboriginal Healing Foundation.

The Canadian Government has announced it will pay Canadian Indians more than $2 billion compensation for forcing children, for almost a century, to attend government "residential schools" located far from their homes.

Mike DeGagne oversees the Ottawa-based healing foundation — a body independent of government and Indigenous groups and responsible for distributing a $350 million fund set up by the Canadian Government to compensate Indigenous Canadians for experiences similar to those of Australia’s stolen generations.

Mr DeGagne said achieving the Canadian Government settlement had taken many decades.

"What it took was patience, diplomacy and sometimes noisy advocacy to get to where we are today. This has happened over several decades. It is not some overnight success", he said.

"I think that every country finds its own way (to make it happen).

"I can tell you that for us, this was really historic."

Mr DeGagne describes the Canadian move as "a very balanced package", but admits that "no deal will please everyone".

He is optimistic that although a national apology is not yet part of the package, it will come eventually.

"This acknowledges what happened, and our past, in a meaningful way", he said.

"Our chief has put a lot of effort into seeking a national apology. This Government has time to craft the right words between now and when the compensation deal actually reaches the people".

Like Australia’s stolen generations, Canadian Aboriginal children were forcibly removed for the purposes of assimilation.

They often would not return to their communities for many years, losing their native language. There also were widespread accusations of sexual and physical abuse.

The Canadian Government has committed to paying almost $10,000 to every former student, with substantial additional compensation paid for each year in "residential schools" and extra compensation if there were allegations of abuse.

Payment may also be made to eligible families whose parents were taken away as a result of the policies, but who have since passed away.

On hearing of the decision, Australia’s National Sorry Day Committee Aboriginal co-chairman Brian Butler said it should compel all Australians to demand similar action from the Federal Government.

"One would think that by the time the whole world is now questioning whether Australia is fair dinkum about human rights", he said.

"The Canadian decision should prompt all Australians to push for positive action by the Government, and that begins with proper acknowledgement in the Constitution, and an official apology."

Mr Butler also cautioned that any apology must not only be to the Stolen Generations.

"Australia must acknowledge its history and the atrocities that have been part of that history … the Coniston Massacre, the deliberate poisoning of whole communities, and all of those policies what were designed to undermine and destroy us", he said.

Sorry Day Committee non-Indigenous co-chair Gillian Brannigan lamented the huge gap between the Canadian and Australian responses. Countries such as South Africa, New Zealand and now Canada have acknowledged their past and are addressing the hurt through various compensation and reparation packages.

"It just makes our Government look all the more shameful", she said.

"This action by the Canadian Government gives more weight to what we are asking the Australian Government to do, and that is to acknowledge the wrongs. If we do that we can move on proudly as a country."

In reply to questions from Koori Mail, a spokeswoman for Prime Minister John Howard said: "Decisions by the Government of Canada are taken by that Government having regard to the circumstances which apply in that country.

"The Prime Minister’s views on an apology are well known and he does not have anything to add to what he has said previously on that subject."

As Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner from 1993-1998, Mick Dodson co-authored Bringing Them Home: The Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families.

He was not surprised by the Howard Government’s response.

"Howard has always lacked any generosity of goodwill or spirit in relation to the stolen generations. I long ago abandoned hope that he would do anything in the way of delivering justice or validation to the stolen generations", he said.

Professor Dodson said a compensation and reparation package in line with international standards, which included a compensation fund, a Reparations Tribunal to determine compensation, acknowledgement, rehabilitation measures, and an official apology, were recommended in the Bringing Them Home report, but few of the 54 recommendations had been acted on.

"Our report found that the removal policies overall were a gross violation of human rights which amounted to genocide … we will have to rely on a future Prime Minister to do the right thing, because this Government does not take any notice of international pressure", he said.

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