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Prince encounters 'unfinished business' of Indigenous history

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Prince William by Chris JohnstonLast week the State Governor of Victoria invited me to attend Government House as part of the formal State welcome to Prince William of Wales.

The invitation provided me with the opportunity to introduce two very different young Australians to Prince William. One has an Irish and Catholic heritage, the other Sudanese and Muslim. Like many other Australians they found William warm and friendly. He could balance a serious conversation with humour and lightness.

What was particularly special about this encounter was not just that these were young people meeting the Prince, much younger than most other people at Government House that day, but how, in many ways, they represented the old and new of Australia's recent history. They imaged challenges and possibilities for our future, whatever our cultural and religious differences, and whatever the future of Australia's connection to the monarchy.

The formal ceremonies had begun a little earlier when Wurundjeri elder, Joy Murphy Wandin, welcomed the Prince to her ancestral country. One could not miss the warmth in her welcome but also the loss and pain. The Prince was graciously invited to come onto what was a significant meeting place for those who once gathered on the land above the Yarra River. Government House is built on prime, elevated land.

Her welcome offered a further image. We, not just the Prince, find ourselves welcomed onto this land by a descendant of those who were dispossessed of it. Her welcome offered further challenges and possibilities for our future. 'Unfinished business', as my Aboriginal friends might say.

These two images of challenges and possibilities are now linked in my mind. They suggest that healing is generated when people come together, particularly when they seek to overcome the legacy of historical differences and separations.

And it would be difficult to come to Australia Day this year without some awareness of historical 'separation' within our larger Australian community, particularly of three groups of people who have recently claimed our attention for recognition and healing.

They are often named the Stolen Generations, the Lost Innocents and the Forgotten Australians. They include, respectively, Aboriginal children removed from their lands and families, those brought to Australia as child migrants, and those who grew up in institutional care.

These three groups of children, now adults, claim an important part of our Australian story. They each link our history to English cultural and colonising values and attitudes, and they each hold deep and wounded memories of children who were separated from their parents, families and land.

Separation from a parent is something Prince William understands. 'Did your mummy die?' a six-year old asked him last week. 'Yes', he answered, 'she did; it was pretty sad.'

That moment of his separation from Diana is something many of us have not forgotten. William was only 15 at the time. Since then it has not been possible for him to grow into leadership without being regularly reminded of his mother, her grace and warmth. Her passing was, and continues to be, mourned by many. The Prince is not the only person who has felt the pain and cost of this separation.

Each Australia Day encourages us to remember our nation's history, particularly in the light of what we continue to learn. It challenges us to look beyond 222 years and feel connected to a far longer past and ancestral history. As descendants of earlier or more recent settlers we are invited to listen to the various voices of our past, to welcome them and allow the hurt of past separations to be named and healed.

This offers new possibilities for our identity and cohesion as a nation. At the same time it challenges behaviours and attitudes that serve to separate people rather than unite them. It offers faith to a younger generation that a more inclusive nation is possible.

Hopefully, the Prince experienced both wisdom and healing in his recent trip. His presence served to remind me of the multiple stories of separation in our nation's history and to strengthen my resolve to keep working on the 'business' that remains unfinished.

As I stood with these two young Australians last week, and heard Joy Wandin Murphy's welcome, I experienced a spirit of openness and hope. Here were people who encourage us to keep listening to our past, rejecting those forces that threaten to separate us and to keep working together for a new and more inclusive future for all.

Brian McCoyDr Brian F. McCoy, SJ, is NHMRC Post Doctoral Fellow for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health at the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society, La Trobe University. He is the author of Holding Men: Kanyirninpa and the Health of Aboriginal Men.


Topic tags: Brian McCoy, Prince William, Australia Day, Stolen Generations, Forgotten Australians, Lost Innocents



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Existing comments

Thank you Brian for your humane and Christian leadership. Words and deeds speak loudly in your case

Ray O'Donoghue | 25 January 2010  

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