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   Vol. 67/No. 35           October 13, 2003  
 
 
Film depicts kidnapping of Aboriginal children
(In Review column)
 
BY BRENDAN GLEESON  
SYDNEY, Australia—The 2002 movie Rabbit-Proof Fence tells the story of three Aboriginal girls and their epic trek across 1,500 miles of outback Western Australia in 1931. It brings to vivid life the impact of decades-long policies of assimilation by the Australian government.

The film is based on Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence, a memoir by Doris Pilkington Garimara, the daughter of Molly, the oldest of the three. The book and movie have added new heat to the debate about the responsibility of successive governments for the second-class status of Aborigines then and now.

Molly, Gracie, and Daisy begin their journey with their escape from the Moore River Detention Center near Perth in Western Australia. They had been incarcerated there after being taken from their families. Such removals were part of a systematic government attempt to separate “half-caste” children from their communities, and—in the cases of the “lucky” ones—place them with white families for lives of domestic servitude or wage labor.

The three girls follow the fence constructed to limit the spread of the plague of rabbits. One is recaptured, but by using survival skills accumulated through many generations of existence in the desert environment, Molly and Daisy make it all the way home.

The “Stolen Generations” policy—as the removals became known and were termed in a 1997 government study entitled “Bringing Them Home”—was only brought to an official halt in 1970. Under 1905 Western Australia legislation the Chief Protector of Aboriginals was the legal guardian of all Aboriginal children up to the age of 16. A. O. Neville, featured in the film, held this position from 1915 until 1940.

After 1933 children with lighter skin would be selected by Neville’s officials and sent from Moore River and similar prisons to different facilities to receive a “superior education,” supposedly to enable them to pass as white. Frequently justifying their actions by paternalistic rhetoric about bringing civilization to the Aborigines, the authorities aimed to avoid the alleged problem of intermarriage by “half-caste” and “full blood” Aborigines. Speaking at the first conference of Aboriginal administrators in 1937, Neville asked rhetorically, “Are we going to have a population of one million blacks in the Commonwealth?”  
 
‘Always be on the alert’
Giving evidence to the government inquiry that resulted in the “Bringing Them Home” report, an Aboriginal woman described her community’s attempts to disguise their fairer-skinned children. “Every morning our people would crush charcoal and mix that with animal fat and smother that all over us, so that when the police came they would see black children in the distance,” she said. “We were told to always be on the alert and, if white people came, to run into the bush.”

The report stated that “between one in three and one in ten indigenous children were forcibly removed from their families and communities from approximately 1910 until 1970 Most families have been affected in one or more generations, by the forcible removal of one or more children.”

Present-day apologists for the policy claim the children were not accepted in their own community because they were “half-caste,” and were removed “for their own protection” from abuse. Forced removals were “close to fantasies,” wrote a former Liberal Party Aboriginal affairs minister, Peter Howson, in the Australian of March 11, 2002.

However, John Hewson, a former leader of the Liberal Party, the dominant partner in the ruling coalition, wrote in the April 12, 2002 Financial Review: “We can’t, as a nation, go on pretending that Aboriginal children were not forcibly removed.”

The national struggles by the Aboriginal people over the decades have helped to lift the lid on the impact of government policies. In one of the most dramatic illustrations of the changes these struggles have wrought, hundreds of thousands of people around the country joined “reconciliation” walks in May 2000 to oppose continuing racial discrimination.

That discrimination still marks the lives of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, who form a little more than 2 percent of Australia’s 20 million people-a proportion that is growing. In 1999 the unemployment rate among Aboriginal people in the state of New South Wales was 27 per cent-four times the national average. Life expectancy is some 15 to 17 years below the average and infant mortality is three times the national rate. In 1991 the Aboriginal imprisonment rate was 18 times that of non-Aborigines.  
 
 
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