RAY COLLINS: National Reconciliation Week

When the then Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, gave the apology to the Stolen Generation in our national parliament, I was struck by the question posed by one of the radio commentators who asked an Aboriginal co-commentator, Why do we begin a lot of meetings, conferences, with a "Welcome to Country"?

It was the answer his co-commentator provided that has stayed with me ever since and it is particularly relevant to this week's celebration of National Reconciliation Week.

The answer was along these lines:

When the first non-indigenous people came to this land they didn’t seek permission, they just came. In fact, their arrival was more of an invasion than a “settlement” as is often portrayed in the story of Australia. They were certainly not welcome and their intrusion into the life of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, the disinheriting these people of their land, the spreading of diseases that had never existed in this country before, meant that their presence was one the Indigenous people certainly did not embrace.

The Welcome to Country today is recognition that, despite those difficulties, there is a shared history over the last 229 years and the presence of non–indigenous people is acknowledged. However, it is a symbol of this acceptance that the Welcome to Country by local Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander elders is expressed. As fellow Australians, we are welcomed to the land for which they act as custodians on behalf of their people.

At The National Reconciliation Week Liturgy, held at the Sacred Heart Cathedral last Thursday, we were reminded of this shared history, one that from a European perspective has failed to tell the full story, the one of dislocation, of prejudice, of murder and violence, of lack of recognition and of family breakdown.

The theme for this year’s National Reconciliation Week, Our History, Our Story, Our Future, speaks of that history, of the stories that history evokes, the sad and the joyful, the truth and the distortions. It also speaks of a future together that will be enriched by our acknowledgement of the hurts of the past, of working together and of telling the true story.

The Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle is part of that history, it is part of the story and it commits to being part of the future with our indigenous brothers and sisters. This year, we celebrate 150 years since the arrival of our first resident Bishop who, amongst the many other initiatives he undertook, established the Catholic school system that exists today. The schools of the diocese have played a rich part in its history, but for many years, there was an under-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students in our schools.

In recent years, that has been addressed, which was shown at last week's cathedral filled with so many of our indigenous students, teachers and support staff. On Thursday, we celebrated the contribution they are making to our Catholic communities and we celebrated with them the importance of continuing to recognise the history and the story of the original inhabitants of this land and join with them in shaping a future together.

Ray Collins Image
Ray Collins

Ray Collins is the Director of Schools within the Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle. He is an authority on education issues.

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