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Australia apologises for mistreating Aborigines

CANBERRA - Australia apologised on Wednesday for the historic mistreatment of Aborigines, moving many Aborigines to tears and prompting cheers from huge crowds gathered in cities across the nation.
Australians gather to watch Prime Minister Kevin Rudd apologise to Aboriginal Australians on a big screen outside Parliament House in Canberra February 13, 2008. (REUTERS/Mick Tsikas)

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd told parliament that past policies of assimilation, under which aboriginal children were taken from their families to be brought up in white households, were a stain on the nation's soul.

"Today, the parliament has come together to right a great wrong," Rudd said.

"We apologise for the laws and policies of successive parliaments and governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians."

The parliamentary apology comes 11 years after a major report into past assimilation policies found between one in three and one in 10 aboriginal children had been taken from their families between 1910 and 1970.

The report urged a national apology to those affected, known as the Stolen Generations, but the then conservative government under prime minister John Howard rejected the finding and offered only a statement of regret.

Rudd made the apology the first item of parliamentary business for centre-left Labor, which won power in November last year, ending almost 12 years of conservative rule.

"It makes the indigenous community feel, for the first time in a real long time, really feel part of Australia, that it's embraced by the whole Australian nation," Stolen Generation elder Mark Bin Bakar told Reuters.

"It's about us coming together as a country, acknowledging our past and moving on, accepting each other as brothers and sisters of this nation," he said.

About 100 members of the Stolen Generations were in parliament to hear the government apologise, some wiping away tears as Rudd spoke, while thousands more gathered from dawn on the lawns outside to watch him speak on giant television screens.


Others paused at city squares, town halls and schools around the country to watch the speech, which Australians expect to open a new era of reconciliation between indigenous and white Australians.

In Sydney's inner-city suburb of Redfern, home to a large aboriginal community, hundreds stood in heavy rain and cheered each of the three times Rudd said "sorry".

"Sorry heals the heart, and it goes deep," said Redfern aboriginal activist Rhonda Dixon-Grovenor.

Australia has about 460,000 indigenous Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, who make up about 2 percent of the 21 million population. There are no aboriginal members in the national parliament.

Aborigines are the most disadvantaged group in Australia, with a life expectancy 17 years less than other Australians, and far higher rates of infant mortality, unemployment, imprisonment, alcohol and drug abuse and domestic violence.

Rudd has promised to end the gap in life expectancy within a generation, and to end aboriginal inequality.

At a morning tea in parliament, hundreds of Aborigines sobbed and hugged, many wearing bandanas and shirts emblazoned with the aboriginal flag, a yellow sun on a black and red background.

"Our people have looked forward to this with great longing," said Christine King, another Stolen Generations representative.

Bin Bakar said the apology would strengthen the image of indigenous people around the globe.

"This is so important for the whole world. It's a step forward in recognising that the most important people on the planet are the indigenous peoples ... that indigenous people can offer to sustain the world," Bin Bakar said.

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