Truth-telling Central to Reconciliation Process
National Reconciliation Week is just around the corner. In keeping with this year’s theme – Don’t Keep History a Mystery – we take a look at the role of truth-telling and historical acceptance in moving the nation forward.
Truth-telling about past injustices has long been used in the international sphere as a starting point for coming to terms with a period of conflict, upheaval or injustice. Formal processes of truth-telling, such as truth and reconciliation commissions, have been used more than 30 times since the 1970s in countries around the world. These processes promote awareness of the historical and ongoing impact of past actions, and encourage all sides to forge ahead in a reconciled and peaceful way.
In Australia, there is growing momentum to establish a truth-telling commission that would result in an honest and full understanding of colonisation, and the dispossession and trauma that First Nations Peoples were subjected to in the following years. The Referendum Council, which was established to consult with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples about their views on constitutional recognition, highlighted the importance of truth-telling in its 2017 final report. Truth-telling was one of three recommendations supported at each of the council’s 18 dialogues – attended by a total of 1200 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander delegates around the country – as necessary initiatives. As a delegate from Darwin stated:
“Australia must acknowledge its history, its true history … the massacres and the wars. If that were taught in schools, we might have one nation, where we are all together.”
The Referendum Council’s proposal builds on a considerable history of advocacy for a process of truth-telling about Australia’s history. The Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation discussed the topic in its final report, delivered in 2000 following a nine-year process of community consultation about how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and non-Indigenous Australians could move forward together. The report found there was “a strong desire within the Australian community to make amends for the past, to recognise and value the unique status of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and to work towards a future where all Australians enjoy their rights, accept their responsibilities, and have the opportunity to achieve their full potential.”
The same report cites former Governor-General, Sir William Deane’s strong rationale – originally delivered in the inaugural Vincent Lingiari Memorial Lecture in 1996 – for why coming to terms with the past is fundamental to reconciliation. “The past is never fully gone,” he said. “It is absorbed into the present and the future. It stays to shape what we are and what we do.”
Building on the foundations laid by the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation, Reconciliation Australia’s 2016 State of Reconciliation in Australia report articulated the need for truth to be a pillar of the nation’s journey towards unity and equity. The report identifies historical acceptance as one of five interrelated dimensions needed to progress reconciliation. Historical acceptance requires all Australians to acknowledge and accept the shared and often difficult truths of our past, so that we can move forward together.
Many Australians are open to taking this step, according to the findings of the 2016 Australian Reconciliation Barometer. The survey, which Reconciliation Australia conducts biannually to measure progress towards reconciliation, found that 68 per cent of Australians accept that government policy enabled Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children to be removed from their families without permission until the 1970s. Similarly, 64 per cent of Australians accept that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were subject to mass killings, incarceration, forced removal from land, and restricted movement throughout the 1800s. While these statistics have grown since the 2014 Barometer, they indicate that about a third of Australians are yet to accept fundamental aspects of our shared history and the treatment of First Peoples.
Separate yet related to formal truth-telling processes is the role of public space in raising awareness of historical facts. Until recently, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history had been all but absent from the public landscape, in terms of monuments, memorials and statues. Placemaking plays an important role in our collective memory: it reminds us of our history, our values and our identity. While our public spaces are full of statues that depict colonial figures, they have been mostly silent on Aboriginal and Torres Strait leaders and contributions to our nation. However, this has started to change in recent years.
This year, ‘Wirin’ statue in Perth’s Yagan Park was installed to commemorate Aboriginal warrior Yagan, who was a Whadjuk Noongar leader and a resistance fighter during the early years of the Swan River Colony in Western Australia. This followed the 2015 erection of the ‘Yininmadyemi – thou didst let fall’ monument in Sydney’s Hyde Park, to pay tribute to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who served in the military. Across the country are many other examples of local councils and communities highlighting in public space the histories, cultures and contributions of First Nations Peoples.
Also important are efforts to establish the historical facts of our past – such as University of Newcastle Professor Lyndall Ryan’s research project on frontier violence between 1788 and 1960. Professor Ryan has recorded and – for the first time in the world – uncovered corroborating evidence of more than 150 massacres of Aboriginal people, which are now documented in an online digital map.
The importance of the growing movement for truth-telling and historical acceptance is perhaps summed up best by Professor Pat Dodson. The founding chairperson of the Council of Aboriginal Reconciliation and current Australian Labor Party Senator for Western Australia wrote in the foreword to the 2016 State of Reconciliation in Australia report that there is a “schism” between how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians and non-Indigenous Australians understand the impact of our nation’s history on the current circumstances of Indigenous communities. He concluded:
“There is a discernible lack of appreciation by settler Australia about the grievances and sense of historical injustice that Indigenous people feel. This must be addressed for Australia to be reconciled.”
National Reconciliation Week is a great opportunity to engage with the theme of historical acceptance and better understand how truth-telling can play a critical role on our path to becoming a reconciled nation. To learn more or to find a National Reconciliation Week event near you, visit reconciliation.org.au/national-reconciliation-week.