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Aborigines welcome Australian MPs
Welcoming ceremony comes as PM set to make first formal apology to Aborigines.
Last Modified: 14 Feb 2008 14:18 GMT

Australia's PM said the ceremony was a "significant and symbolic step" [GALLO/GETTY]

The first session of Australia's new parliament has opened to the rhythm of an Aboriginal welcoming ceremony, an historic event intended to mark a new era of race relations in the country.
Tuesday's ceremony in Canberra saw Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander dancers and musicians call on their ancestor spirits to welcome Kevin Rudd, the Australian prime minister, and other legislators.

On Wednesday Rudd is expected to offer a formal apology to Aborigines over what has become known as "stolen generations" - the thousands of Aborigines who were taken from their families as children under a controversial assimilation policy.

 

"It is a good and honest and a decent and human act to reach out and make sure everyone has a place and is welcome"

Matilda House, Ngunnawal tribe elder

The welcoming ceremony by Aborigines of the Ngunnawal tribe marks the first symbolic recognition by the government that the aboriginal land on which Australia's capital now stands was taken away without compensation by European settlers.

 

Matilda House, a Ngunnawal elder, presented Rudd with a traditional "message stick" and praised the government for "a human act" to reach out to all Australians.

 

She said the ceremony allowed safe passage for all visitors to the national legislature.

 

"For thousands of years our people have observed this protocol, it is a good and honest and a decent and human act to reach out and make sure everyone has a place and is welcome.

 

"On behalf of the first people of this land, prime minister, I now return this honour," she said.

 

Rudd, who won a landslide victory in national elections last November, described the ceremony as "a significant and symbolic step".

 

'Wrongs of the past'

 

Rudd is due to offer a formal apology
to the stolen generations [GALLO/GETTY]
"Today we begin with one small step to set right the wrongs of the past," he said. "Let this become an important part of our celebration of Australian democracy."

 

Aborigines account for about 450,000 of Australia's population of 21 million and are the country's most disadvantaged ethnic group.

 

A recent health study found the Aboriginal males had a life expectancy 17 years shorter than other Australians.

 

More than 100 Aboriginal leaders and other dignitaries including business leaders and former prime ministers are expected to attend Rudd's apology speech, which will be aired live across Australia.

 

John Howard, Rudd's predecessor, had refused to make an apology, arguing that today's generation should not be made responsible for mistakes of the past, raising the possibility that a formal apology could lead to civil suits.

 

Ten years ago a government-funded inquiry into the stolen generations recommended a formal apology to those taken, along with compensation.

 

The inquiry found those uprooted from their communities suffered extreme trauma and long-term psychological effects stemming from their loss of family and culture.

 

Mike Williams, 55, an Aborigine from the southern Pitjantjatjarra desert area who travelled by bus to Canberra to witness this week's ceremonies, said: "I hope this will be a new start … a new way."

Source:
Agencies
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