Australian Aborigine Wins Landmark Case

by Kevin Jon Heller

“Justice delayed,” William Gladstone once said,” is justice denied.” True enough, but there is a competing adage: “better late than never.” The latter clearly applies to the tragic story of an Australian aborigine who was awarded more than $400,000 last week for being stolen from his family as a child:

“The best thing is knowing they never forgot me, my mum and dad. They didn’t want to let me go. There’s proof of that.”

Clutching a mug of tea, Bruce Trevorrow is sitting on a picnic bench in the beautiful national park of The Coorong, a place of wetlands, saltpans and vast skies. He is talking about his parents, Joe and Thora, both dead, and his childhood. It is not a happy tale but one of prejudice, cruelty and loss. He was born near here, a member of the Ngarrindjeri people, but did not grow up here. His childhood and his identity as an Aborigine were snatched from him as one of Australia’s so-called Stolen Generation.

This week Mr Trevorrow, 50, won a landmark compensation claim in the South Australian supreme court, the first payment of its kind. A judge awarded him A$525,000 (£220,000), acknowledging that he had been “falsely imprisoned by the state”, that the authorities had failed in their duty of care towards him and that such conduct had ruptured the bond between him and his natural family, leading to lifelong depression.

The judgment, delivered in a courtroom where you could have heard a pin drop, was significant, according to one of Mr Trevorrow’s legal team, Joanna Richardson, because it acknowledged in legal terms the suffering Mr Trevorrow went through after his removal from his family. It could also establish a precedent for future cases. “It’s been fairly emotional,” said Mr Trevorrow. He added that it had given him “peace of mind and a feeling of closure”.

In 1957, he was 13 months old when he became ill with gastroenteritis. His father was looking after him and his three elder siblings while their mother was visiting relatives and, concerned about his son, asked a neighbour who had a car to take him to Adelaide children’s hospital.

The family, who knew about the policy of forced removal in which Aboriginal children were perceived to be better off being raised in white society, wanted to ensure he came back to them. With no telephone or car, they relied on the local police to give them news and repeatedly asked about the boy. A letter, dated five months after he was taken away, was one of several written by his mother to the Aboriginal Protection Board and was produced in court. “I am writing to ask if you will let me know how baby Bruce is and how long before I can have him home as I have not forgot I have a baby in there and I would like something defanat [sic] about him this time trust you will let me know as soon as possible,” she wrote.

The board wrote back saying her son was “making good progress” and falsely claimed that the doctors needed to keep him in for further treatment. In fact, Bruce had already been fostered to a white family. Although they cared for him at first, he grew up confused about the difference between him and the other children. He was taunted at school and became emotionally disturbed.

Australia isn’t the only country, of course, to have stolen a generation of indigenous children. The U.S. routinely placed Indian children with non-Indian families for all kinds of paternalistic reasons prior to the passage of the Indian Child Welfare Act in 1978 — 25-35% of Indian children in some states. And Canada had its “Sixties Scoop,” nearly 25 years (despite the name) of removing Canadian aboriginals from their homes so white middle-class families could adopt them.

On June 29, 2006, the UN Human Rights Council adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and recommended the UN General Assembly do likewise. Articles 7 and 8 of the Declaration would specifically prohibit — and provide redress for — what happened to Trevorrow and so many countless others:

Article 7

1. Indigenous individuals have the rights to life, physical and mental integrity, liberty and security of person.

2. Indigenous peoples have the collective right to live in freedom, peace and security as distinct peoples and shall not be subjected to any act of genocide or any other act of violence, including forcibly removing children of the group to another group.

Article 8

1. Indigenous peoples and individuals have the right not to be subjected to forced assimilation or destruction of their culture.

2. States shall provide effective mechanisms for prevention of, and redress for:

(a) Any action which has the aim or effect of depriving them of their integrity as distinct peoples, or of their cultural values or ethnic identities;

(b) Any action which has the aim or effect of dispossessing them of their lands, territories or resources;

(c) Any form of forced population transfer which has the aim or effect of violating or undermining any of their rights;

(d) Any form of forced assimilation or integration by other cultures or ways of life imposed on them by legislative, administrative or other measures;

(e) Any form of propaganda designed to promote or incite racial or ethnic discrimination directed against them.

The Declaration was approved by a 30-2 vote — with only Canada and Russia voting against it. Unfortunately, the Third Committee of the General Assembly refused to adopt the Declaration in November, postponing a vote “to allow for further consultation.” The efforts to block adoption were led by Australia, Canada, the U.S. and — shamefully — New Zealand.

Notice the overlap?

One Response

  1. Glad to see that some Australian Aboriginies are getting redress. It is terrible that the U.N. failed to adopt this Declaration, and even worse that the countries that have been harshest to indigenous peoples were the one who blocked the adoption. I have made a few comments about this and the new upcoming voite on my blog, Indigenous Issues Today. Might be of interest. Anyways, great post.

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