A moving memorial to Australia's Stolen Generations on National Sorry Day.
On 26 May 2017, Eastern Suburbs Memorial Park (ESMP) officially opened a new memorial dedicated to the Aboriginal Community, remembering Aboriginal children who were taken away from their parents, and those parents who were laid to rest at ESMP before their children returned home.
On National Sorry Day, former Governor of NSW, Professor the Honourable Dame Marie Bashir joined leading state politicians, Park representatives and local Indigenous Elders at the ESMP to dedicate the state’s first memorial to the Stolen Generations in a major cemetery.
The ceremony was attended by around 400 people, including students from local schools and members of the community. The memorial commemorated 20 years since the Bringing Them Home report was tabled in Federal Parliament, which testified to the impact of forced removal of Aboriginal children from their parents.
“It was a very emotional day for many who have been touched by the impact of the Stolen Generations,” acknowledged Carolyn Dowe, Senior Manager Customer Care. “But recognising the suffering caused by those policies has been a really important step forward for our cemetery and for our role in the community.”
According to the 1995 National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families, between one in three and one in ten Aboriginal children were forcibly removed between 1910 and 1970. The children often experienced harsh treatment and many were taught that their families did not want them, or that their parents were dead. The resulting trauma is still being felt today.
ESMP contains more burials of the Stolen Generations than any other cemetery in Sydney. In 2016, the Park reached out to the indigenous community to help create a unique space that celebrated their special place in the region and in the cemetery. The La Perouse indigenous group can trace their history through 5,000 years of continuous settlement in the area and were the first to have contact with Captain Cook in 1770, followed by the First Fleet in 1788.
“Over a year ago I had the privilege of meeting a group of wonderful lady elders, organised by one of our local indigenous elders, Aunty Barb Simms-Keeley,” said Ms Dowe. “They made it clear they wanted this memorial to speak the stories closest to their hearts, of loss, grief and healing; of past, present and future, of stories spoken around the Stolen Generations.”
Together, they formed the concepts for the stone’s design, which was then crafted to pay homage in granite to the community’s saltwater origins.
“The fish and shells are all common to the area. We included images relating to men’s business, such as boomerang, nulla nulla and spear. The child’s footprints you see etched into the memorial, growing into adult feet, signify the journey of children leaving and returning home,” said Ms Dowe.
The unveiling offered a chance for community leaders to express forgiveness, justice, sorrow and regret for the damage done to the local community. Local Federal Labor MP Matt Thistlethwaite said he was horrified to learn the language of the Bidjigal people had been lost to history because of what happened during the Stolen Generations. “Thankfully, we now recognise the error of those policies and this important monument symbolises that those policies were unjustified, they were disrespectful, they were ignorant and, importantly, they were wrong.”
The Park was keen to ensure the Memorial spoke not just to the hurt caused, but became a “beacon of hope” in the ongoing journey of healing. During the ceremony, Aunty Barb Simms-Keeley spoke of the symbolism butterflies have, as symbols of hope, and was invited to release butterflies above the memorial to signify that faith in a better future.
Because many of the children taken from the La Perouse mission ended up in children’s homes on the south coast, soil was also sourced from the location of the Bomaderry Children’s Home, Kinchella Boys Home and the Cootamundra Girls’ Home, and sprinkled over the garden surrounding the memorial.
Soil from the Park was presented by the Acting Chief Executive Officer La Perouse Local Aboriginal Land Council, Ash Walker, to The Hon. Shelley Hancock MP, Speaker of the NSW Legislative Assembly, Member for South Coast, to sprinkle over the Stolen Generation Memorial in Nowra.
Pastor Ray Minniecon then invited families from the area to lay wreathes, as well as Members on behalf of the Kinchela and Roylston Boys Home, Bidura, Cootamundra and Parramatta Girls Homes, and Bomaderry Children’s Home.
During her speech, Ms Dowe reflected powerfully on its deep purpose. “We cannot undo the wrong that was done. Those cries of children sobbing without their parents will echo forever. Many of those children are here today. I hope and pray that those who were impacted and now rest in our cemeteries will sense us in our gathering and, in spirit, that they know that we remember, that we care. Today, we recount their names. This memorial is a beacon… our gathering today shows that together we will find ways to a future of united efforts filled with dignity and, above all, hope.”