Apology Breakfast 2024: Truth Telling

Dierdre Robertson - 2024 Apology BreakfastThe Shepparton Region Reconciliation Group held the annual Apology Breakfast at Queens Gardens, Shepparton, on the morning of 13 February, 2024. This day was the 16th Anniversary of the Apology to the Stolen Generations. The Guest Speaker was Dierdre Robertson, Co-Convenor of the Shepparton Region Reconciliation Group. The theme of her talk was Truth Telling, and honouring “A commitment to do more.”

I’m usually standing to the side, listening, absorbing the story of the guest speaker.

This year it’s different. I’m at the lectern and I’m doing the speaking.

The Apology Breakfast is about truth-telling – a process of openly sharing truths after periods of conflict to allow for re-setting of relationships based on justice and human rights.

Jarra Lovett - student from ASHE
Jarra Lovett – student from ASHE – performs the smoking ceremony at the Apology Breakfast, 2024


It takes courage.

Courage to tell stories – stories of grandparents, aunts, uncles, loved family members.

Over the years we’ve heard from a number of Apology Breakfast speakers: Khiara Harrison, Chris Walker, Ebony Joachim, Lena-Jean Charles-Loffel, Natarsha Bamblett, Tahnee Day and Jarvis Atkinson. We’ve heard them talk about the pain of family members being taken and how these stories have shaped the tellers. Woven through the stories has been the underlying themes of truth and the strength of family and community.

Last Friday I was listening to Speaking Out on Radio National. Larissa Behrendt was interviewing the journalist and author David Marr about his new book Killing for Country: a family story.

An uncle on Marr’s mother’s side asked him to find out more about his grandmother, Maude Uhr, someone his uncle knew little about. David Marr was a journalist, so it made sense to ask him to help.

As Marr hunted through archives, libraries, and other records, he discovered that four of his relatives – Richard Jones, Jones’ brother-in-law, Edmund Uhr, and his sons two sons Reg and Darcy had a “really dreadful role on the frontier”.

The Uhrs were officers of the infamous Native Police and Jones a sheep grazier, anxious to grasp as much land as he could. The “dreadful role” included horrific killings or and work to enable these atrocities to happen, unfettered by any legal limits or intervention.

The more Marr uncovered, the more determined that he had a moral obligation to tell this story and tell it truthfully.

To tell that this land was conquered, that the taking of this land came at such a price. But also, to hope that other descendants of early colonists will have the courage to come forward with their family stories from the frontier, to be able to tell these stories truthfully.

On the anniversary of the National Apology to the Stolen Generations it’s time for some truth-telling from the other side – the white side.

To honestly acknowledge the history of Australia that is sitting in the many archives across the country – in letters, diaries, newspapers, Government reports and laws.

To think about our own families’ settlement of this country. To delve deeper, to ask questions. To have the courage to find the truth.

To understand the hidden truths in stories of ‘taming the land’.

To understand the meaning of words like ‘Cleanse’ and ‘Dispersal’.

To understand the true price of nationhood and how this was a price so heavily paid by the First Peoples of this continent. Paid in loss of life, land, liberty, community and Culture.

Despite direction to all colonial Governors that the Aboriginal people had a ‘plain and sacred right to their own soil’, the clearing of lands of the native population took place throughout the country as white settlement spread and pastoral interests particularly the wool industry, flourished.

The continent of Australia was conquered. It was a lengthy, bloody, brutal conquest, perhaps the most brutal of all conquests by the British Empire. With a few notable exceptions, no authorities intervened to protect the indigenous owners of the land.

So, while wool had a dramatically beneficial effect on Australia’s economy, it came at a great cost. It led to the forced removal of Aboriginal people from their traditional lands. To numerous massacres – massacres that continued well into the 20th century. This period in Australia’s history is sometimes referred to as the ‘Frontier Wars’ or for First Nations peoples, the “Killing Times”.

Cleansed from land, dispersed from land. No land gave no economic base in a new society where land was all. Possession was king.

Australia stands alone as the only Commonwealth that does not have a Treaty or Treaties with the many nations across the country. We have never reached an accommodation with those we conquered. Have not considered reparations. This is our ongoing legacy.

The protests about the unrestrained killings in the mid to late 1800’s may have stopped the worst of the carnage, but they also led to a system of segregation and control. Missions, reserves, stations, and the organised removal of children – the Stolen Generations

So here we are today. The Apology Breakfast – a part of truth-telling.

The Redfern Speech

Paul Keating in his Redfern Speech said:

“It begins, I think, with that act of recognition.
Recognition that it was we who did the dispossessing.
We took the traditional lands and smashed the traditional way of life.
We brought the diseases. The alcohol.
We committed the murders.
We took the children from their mothers.
We practised discrimination and exclusion.
It was our ignorance and our prejudice. And our failure to imagine these things being done to us.
With some noble exceptions, we failed to make the most basic human response and enter into their hearts and minds.
We failed to ask – how would I feel if this were done to me?
As a consequence, we failed to see that what we were doing degraded all of us.”

We failed to see that what we were doing degraded all of us.

The late Sir Ronald Wilson who, with Mick Dodson, co-authored the Bringing Them Home Report said:

“An apology begins the Healing process. It means an understanding, a willingness to enter into the suffering. It implies a commitment to do more”.

I read the many stories in the Bringing Them Home Report. I listened with my heart, felt the emotion that poured off the words. I’ve heard stories of the many speakers at Apology Breakfasts in the past.

And this is why we are here today. To recognise that this removal happened. It was cruel, brutal, with long-term consequences for those taken and their families and communities.

The foreword to the Bringing Them Home Report says: “This report is a tribute to the strength and struggles of many thousands of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people affected by forcible removal. We acknowledge the hardships they endured and the sacrifices they made. We remember and lament all the children who will never come home.

We dedicate this report with thanks and admiration to those who found the strength to tell their stories to the Inquiry and to the generations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people separated from their families and communities.”

Listen to the words of the Apology as they are read this morning. Listen to understand; to not just hear but to feel the words.

Reflect on the strength of Aboriginal communities across the nation and, in particular, in our local community. To have survived all that has been thrown at them, to be still here telling their stories, singing their songs, speaking their languages is a testament to courage, determination, resilience.

Can we – non-Aboriginal people – step into the space of our truth-telling? Can we find the courage to move past the euphemisms that smudged the reality of what happened? To realise that our past is still with us today, in our attitudes and our blindness to see beyond ourselves.

As Larissa Behrendt in her interview with David Marr said: “If you understand the history, it gives us an obligation to think about the future. It’s not what you do about the past, but what does this mean for our future.”

What can we do?

As Sir Ronald Wilson said, we can make “A commitment to do more.”

There are no short cuts to the future. The path to the future passes through its past: the good and the bad.

We are joining the healing journey – a journey that is so important for our nation. For us all to be part of solutions into the future. This is the spirit of the Apology Breakfast

Again, it’s not what you do about the past but what you do about the future.

To face and understand the links of the past as they are played out in the living of today – the ongoing removal of Aboriginal children over-represented in out-of-home care, Deaths in Custody, the list goes on.

To actually listen to Aboriginal voices. These voices hold the key to our future.

Last year Jarvis Atkinson wove his story around Uncle Archie Roach’s song Manjana a mother who never gave up looking for her son who was taken from her at birth. It was a powerful telling of an all too familiar story.

This year I’ll leave you with some lyrics written in 1949 – 75 years ago. To our shame, they are as relevant now as they were back then.

Rogers And Hamerstein’s South Pacific

You’ve got to be taught
To hate and fear,
You’ve got to be taught
From year to year,
It’s got to be drummed
In your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade,
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You’ve got to be carefully taught! *

Let’s think about the legacy we leave our young people – the future of our nation depends on it.

And let’s all of us work together to make our community and our country, courageous enough to understand the transformative power of truth-telling for all of us.

Dierdre Robertson
Shepparton Region Reconciliation Group

Greater Shepparton Secondary College Students
Greater Shepparton Secondary College Students Madeline Judd and Isabella O’Dwyer read the apology


Excerpts from the Apology to the Stolen Generations


*Lyrics from Roger and Hamerstein’s musical, South Pacific
Reproduced with permission, Shepparton Region Reconciliation Group



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