James Michael “Widdy” Welsh, 66, catches sight of me, a reporter who has come from another hemisphere to interview him. He walks over, lays his head on my shoulder and enfolds me in a bear hug.
“My journey to be here now with you, I understand clearly, is my destiny,” he says in his soft Australian drawl.
We are at the bustling offices of the Kinchela Boys Home Aboriginal Corporation in Sydney in a sparsely furnished room on the second floor. Downstairs, around tables gathered behind floor-to-ceiling glass walls overlooking the palm trees of Redfern Park, a meeting is underway. From time to time, peals of laughter rise up the stairs.
Survivors of the Kinchela Boys Home set up the corporation in 2001. The former “home” housed Indigenous Australian children whom government officials seized from their families between 1924 and 1970. It is infamous for the beatings, rape, starvation, forced labour and substandard teaching that occurred there — all of it symbolized by a massive Moreton Bay fig tree to which boys were chained overnight like dogs. The tree still stands on the grounds of the former school.
Uncle Michael, as Welsh is now known, spent five and a half years at the Kinchela home. Over the past few years, he’s been talking a lot about how the trauma of Kinchela shaped him, after years of not being able to talk about it at all. That’s because Bringing Them Home, Australia’s groundbreaking 1997 report on what are known here as the “stolen generations,” recently turned 20. The anniversary has prompted a new round of soul-searching, and fresh efforts by Indigenous Australians to gain more constitutional recognition and a tallying of what has happened since the report came out.
I’m here because my country also has a residential school past. Two former British colonies; two sordid histories of institutional harm to Indigenous children; two countries whose legacy of abuse has cascaded through generations of residential school survivors; two countries whose apologies for the past triggered waves of hope for healing. What can we learn from each other? Is the Australian experience a map forward for Canada — or a cautionary tale of what happens when the push for Indigenous rights blazes and wanes?
Uncle Michael remembers all too well his harrowing first night at the Kinchela Boys Home. But it took him a long time to be able to talk about it.
The year was 1960. Welsh was 8, his brother Barry, 10. Government officials had seized them from their home in Coonamble, northwest of Sydney, and put them on a train for what seemed like a lifetime. Five other siblings seized the same day were sent to other homes. When they arrived in Kinchela, 600 kilometres away, Michael and Barry were told their family didn’t want them anymore. They were stripped, shaved, sprayed with delousing powder, given a uniform and assigned a number. “‘Michael, you are no longer Michael,’” he remembers being told. “‘You are number 36. Barry, you are no longer Barry; you are number 17. You will answer to these numbers.’”
Everything sank in that first night at bedtime. It was the smell — or more precisely, the absence of the smell of his brothers, mother and family — that was the cruellest blow. Those smells were comfort, home: dancing around the campfire, scampering along the riverside, snaring rabbits, digging yams, catching shrimps and mussels and eating your fill. All gone.
Things only got worse. Michael Welsh was put to work outside in the cold, dressed only in shorts and a short-sleeved shirt with no shoes. After that, he was promoted to inside housework, waxing and polishing floors, cleaning windows. The staff would come around with a white glove, checking for dust. If they found any, the boys would be punished or deprived of meals.
And the meals were awful. Porridge contained weevils; the staff flogged the boys until they ate it anyway. The boys were always hungry.
They were paraded naked through the halls and forced to shower together. They were thrown into the outdoor pool at dawn as punishment. Some were held down on a wooden workhorse and caned until they couldn’t walk properly or even go to the toilet. Welsh was tied down and sexually assaulted.
One winter afternoon, he was told to milk a rogue cow. He didn’t know how to do it, and the cow kept kicking over the bucket. In a rage, he kicked the cow in the udder.
The farmhand saw and tied him to an iron peg by the Moreton Bay fig tree on the grounds of the institution. “‘You bloody little black bastard!’” Welsh recalls him screaming. “‘I’ll bloody leave you here all night, you little black mongrel.’ And away he went. I couldn’t quite see where he went because of the tree. I started to get panicky. If there was anything I was frightened of, I was frightened of the dark. . . . I started crying, sobbing. It might have been an hour or two later, might have been three, he came back and untied me. He never said anything.”
Other boys were fastened to the fig tree with a thick chain, stripped, doused with water and left there all night.
“I can never know what it’s like to have a loving family. I can never ever know,” Welsh says. And he is acutely aware that Australia is not the only country to treat Indigenous peoples in this way. “I know very well that you’ve got men and women through your homeland over there that have had these great atrocities and things happen to them.”
Three years after the release of the Bringing Them Home report in 1997, the biggest peaceful march in Australia’s history saw 250,000 people walk across the Sydney Harbour Bridge in solidarity with the rights of the stolen children. It was a powerful signal to the rest of the world that the time had finally come for Australia to repair relations with its First Peoples. The effects have rippled through Australian society. On the first anniversary of the report’s release, the government established National Sorry Day — now known as the National Day of Healing. It is marked throughout the country to express remorse for a seizure of Indigenous children so widespread that Bringing Them Home estimated no Indigenous family in Australia was left unscathed. As many as half a million people have signed “sorry books,” many writing heartfelt personal apologies for what the report called genocide against Indigenous Australians.
The 2000 Summer Olympic Games in Sydney highlighted Australia’s Indigenous history on the world stage. At the closing ceremony, the rock band Midnight Oil performed wearing black clothing emblazoned with the word “SORRY,” a sign of Australians’ determination to make amends. The live audience cheered wildly.
As the history of the stolen children came to light, it prompted an outpouring of films, documentaries, books, plays, songs and dance. Among the most famous was the 1996 biography Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence by Doris Pilkington. Translated into 11 languages and made into a widely released film, the story tracks the daring escape of Pilkington’s mother and aunt from a residential school in 1931 and their 1,600-kilometre journey home on foot. Indigenous Australian art, once derided as primitive, now holds a place of honour in Australian galleries. The history of Indigenous peoples and their treatment at the hands of colonizers is prominent in museums across the country.
While the public and cultural response to the report was supportive, the official response was mixed. State and territorial governments issued formal apologies for their part in the seizure of children. But the federal government of the day, under Prime Minister John Howard, rejected many key recommendations and refused to say sorry. The federal apology finally came in 2008, after a change in government. It was the same year as Canada’s apology for residential schools. However, the Australian statement offered little in the way of redress, says Teresa Libesman, an associate law professor at the University of Technology Sydney and an expert on the rights of Indigenous children.
As of 2015, 13 of the report’s 54 main recommendations have been implemented, while the others remain unheeded, according to a scorecard published by the National Sorry Day Committee. A 2017 report by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Healing Foundation concluded the failure to implement more of the recommendations represents a “significantly missed opportunity to address trauma . . . and to provide the basis for genuine reconciliation in Australia.”
The upshot is more Indigenous suicides, high rates of incarceration and children being removed from their families across Australia by child welfare authorities. In New South Wales, for example, more children are removed from their homes today than when laws were overtly racist, says Libesman.
Last year, on the 20th anniversary of Bringing Them Home, more than 250 Indigenous leaders delivered a statement to the federal government, asking for Indigenous voices to be enshrined in the Australian constitution and for a special commission to oversee the establishment of treaties between Indigenous peoples and Australian governments. Delivery of the Uluru Statement from the Heart was a moment heavy with symbolism and ripe for action.
But Indigenous peoples are still not mentioned in the constitution. According to Australia’s Human Rights Commission, protections under anti-discrimination legislation are compromised as a result.
Nor do Indigenous Australians have treaties with the federal government to enforce traditional rights. As flawed and contentious as treaties between Canada and its First Nations may be, “We are really trying to push the Canadian model here in Australia and get some treaty rights,” says Muriel Bamblett, chief executive officer of the Victorian Aboriginal Child Care Agency, in a Skype interview from her office Melbourne. “At the moment, we’re beginning with Victoria and hopefully we’ll get some traction in other states and territories.”
Australians are looking to Canada in other ways. Bamblett has twice been to Manitoba to look at its child protection system, which is endeavouring to put more authority in the hands of First Nations, including for children who live off-reserve.
Libesman came to Canada in 2012 to follow a Canadian Human Rights Tribunal case launched in 2007 by Cindy Blackstock, executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada, and a member of the Gitksan First Nation. In 2016, the tribunal ruled that the federal government is discriminating against Indigenous children living on reserves by shortchanging them on child welfare services. Despite several legal reminders, Ottawa has not complied with the tribunal’s order to deliver the same level of services on reserves that children in other parts of Canada receive.
Blackstock says governments are far too slow to right the wrongs they know exist. Why don’t governments do better when they know better, she asks.
Libesman shares Blackstock’s frustration. The small window of hope that opened 20 years ago has closed, she says. The idea of what she calls a “redemptive response” has faded from public discourse. Instead, large sections of society are pushing to draw a line under the past and move forward without redress. Among other things, this takes the form of telling Indigenous peoples to integrate into mainstream society or “modernize.” “It’s a new kind of assimilation, really,” she says.
Uncle Michael was still lost after he left the Kinchela Boys Home at 13. His own people rejected him, just as the non-Indigenous did. He became an alcoholic. He started to lash out with his fists.
“Thirty-odd years later, I realize that instead of taking control of my life when I turned 18, the courts, the police, the judges and the social workers took over my life. I was in and out of jails like a yo-yo. . . . I was traumatized. I didn’t know what the word ‘traumatized’ meant.”
His brother Barry died at 43; his mother, at 52. His first child, born when the mother was 14, was forcibly removed, just as he had been. Officials told the baby’s parents he had been taken to America; there was no further information. Welsh was reunited with him by chance after his sister spotted and followed a young man driving in Brisbane who reminded her of her brother.
Today, Welsh has eight children with two women, sisters. When he tries to count his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, he loses count at 33, he says, roaring with laughter.
The healing started for him when he made contact with other men who had been incarcerated in the home. He’s become a spokesman for the stolen generations. But none of it makes the pain go away.
“When I tell my story to you, you will get hurt and you will come into the story until you get to the point where the pain and hurt are too much, and then you switch it off. I can’t do that. I sleep with it. I wake up with it. I live with it. It’s my life because of what they did.”
Yet Kinchela recently brought Welsh some unexpected joy. He was back at the home with some other survivors a few years ago when a woman came up to him and said, “I always wondered where my Michael went.” It was Brenda, one of the few non-Indigenous people he had encountered during his time at the home, when he had been allowed to go to school in a nearby town. The two had become close, but when Brenda told her mother that her new boyfriend was one of the kids from Kinchela, Welsh was swiftly pulled out of the school. Three years ago, they started seeing each other again, he confides, a slow grin spreading across his face.
And the Moreton Bay fig tree, which once loomed monstrously over the Kinchela home, has become a symbol of redemption. The thick chain that was used for torturing the boys is nearly gone. Over time, the tree has grown over all but the last two links.
“I want to live long enough to see that tree eat up those last two links,” Welsh tells me. “That tree is our freedom. It’s our strength now.”
We’ve been talking non-stop for more than two hours. He’s drained and so am I. As we part, he shows me his knuckles, and I lightly run my hands over the white scars that cover them. They are the marks of a man’s teeth.
“That’s what I used to do instead of talking,” he says.
This story first appeared in The Observer’s February 2018 edition with the title “Shared roots.”