'Stolen Generation' of Aborigines wins apology and payout in Tasmania

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Eddie Thomas was just a few months old when the white people came and took him away. They took his brother and sister, too. The children's grandmother had been looking after them, following the death of their mother after Eddie's birth.

The three young Aborigines were taken from Cape Barren Island, off the north-east coast of Tasmania, and placed in state care in Launceston, on the Tasmanian mainland. Mr Thomas, now 70, was separated from his siblings and brought up in foster families, where he was beaten and "treated like a slave", he said yesterday.

His grandmother was prevented from visiting them. "There used to be this old lady come to the gate and our foster mother would say 'that's just a silly old black woman' and take us inside," he told The Australian newspaper. "It wasn't until I was old enough to go to work that I met up with an uncle who told me that was my grandmother. She wanted to talk to us, to cuddle us, but she wasn't allowed. She died of a broken heart."

Mr Thomas is a member of the "Stolen Generation" - one of thousands of Aboriginal children forcibly removed from their families and assimilated into white society, under an official policy introduced early last century and not abandoned until 1975.

Australia's treatment of its indigenous people remains a running sore, and the plight of the Stolen Generation is a principal reason. Nine years ago, a national inquiry concluded that the policy amounted to genocide.

The Prime Minister, John Howard, who had just come to power then, has yet to apologise on behalf of his predecessors. Survivors have not received a cent in damages.

That is about to change, in Tasmania at least, following the unveiling yesterday by the state premier, Paul Lennon, of a $5m (£2m) compensation package. For Mr Lennon, it represents a vital step on the road to reconciliation between black and white Australia. "It's about recognising that, in Tasmania's history, Aboriginal people were dispossessed from their land, severed from their culture and taken from their families," he said. "It's about saying that we're sorry that this happened."

The funds will be made available to Tasmanian Aborigines who were separated from their parents, or, in the case of those already dead, to their children. An independently appointed assessor will judge each claim and one-off payments of up to $5,000 per person and $20,000 per family will be made to relatives. The rest of the fund will be divided among surviving members of the Stolen Generation.

Whether other states and territories, and more importantly the federal government, will follow Mr Lennon's lead remains to be seen. But it seems fitting that Tasmania, the island state separated from the mainland by the Bass Strait, should be setting an example.

Within 70 years of the first convict settlement being established on the Derwent River in 1803, much of Tasmania's indigenous population had been wiped out. Those who survived were the descendants of people transported to remote islands in the Bass Strait, or the mixed-race offspring of illegal unions. Between 40 and 125 people are expected to be eligible for compensation, according to Michael Mansell, an Aboriginal lawyer in Tasmania, who described Mr Lennon's package as one of the most significant developments ever for reconciliation.

Nationally, it is thought that about 10,000 Aboriginal children were removed from their families by welfare agencies - with many of the agencies convincedthey were acting in the children's best interests. The policy was conceived in response to the perceived threat to "White Australia" from the intermingling of Aborigines and Europeans. Its aim was to integrate children, particularly those of mixed race, and "breed out" their colour. It was believed that full-blooded Aborigines were becoming extinct.

The suffering caused by the splitting of families is impossible to quantify. It inspired an award-winning film, Rabbit-Proof Fence, by the Australian director Philip Noyce.

The report from Australia's Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, released in 1997, found that up to one in three Aboriginal children had been forcibly removed between 1910 and 1970. They were placed in orphanages, church missions or foster care, where many were physically and sexually abused, or used as unpaid labour.

Mr Howard's response to calls for an apology and reparations was that "Australians of this generation should not be required to accept guilt and blame for past actions and policies over which they had no control"; besides, an apology would open the way for thousands of compensation claims. In 2000, a leaked report by his Aboriginal Affairs Minister, John Herron, denied the existence of a "stolen generation", claiming that no more than 10 per cent of children were taken, "including those who were not forcibly separated and those who were forcibly separated for good reason".

Despite this, the federal government provided $63m in practical assistance to those affected.

In Tasmania, Mr Lennon won multi-party approval for the draft bill, which he presented to Annette Peardon, an Aboriginal elder, in Launceston. For Ms Peardon, who was taken from her mother in 1958, the move evoked "sadness and gladness". Compensation, she said, was an acknowledgement by government that "it was reality, it did happen". She and two siblings were removed from their home on Flinders Island.