The Colonization of Aboriginal Children and Families

Chapter 2

The Colonization of Aboriginal Children and Families

The road to hell was paved with good intentions and the child welfare system was the paving contractor.1


Alex Boraine, the Deputy Chairperson of the South Africa Truth and Reconciliation Commission is reported to have commented with respect to the disappointing response of the Australian commonwealth government to the Bringing Them Home report:

It is wrong simply to say “Turn the page”. It is right to turn the page, but first you have to read it, understand it and acknowledge it. Then you can turn the page.2

This book is primarily concerned with the future direction of Aboriginal child welfare in Australia and Canada. In other words, what is to be found once the page is turned. It is, however, clear that the future direction of Aboriginal child welfare cannot be addressed without first understanding why the past policies and practices of the Australian and Canadian governments were so fundamentally flawed and why they continue to have such a debilitating effect on Aboriginal communities today.

It is now common to hear the claim that the Australian government’s intervention into the lives of Aboriginal families and communities amounted to ‘cultural genocide’ – an allegation that the Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission (HREOC) accepted as justified.3 Similar allegations have been made with respect to the Canadian government’s policy on residential schools.4 The legacy of colonial intervention into Aboriginal families and communities in Canada is strikingly similar to that found in Australia. In both jurisdictions, Aboriginal childhood stood at the centre of colonial strategies to assimilate and absorb the ‘noble savage’ into civilized society.5 Forced removals in Australia and the residential school system in Canada thus played a key role in the early assimilationist policies of the Canadian and Australian governments. In short, they were the principal tools of cultural genocide. The effects of that legacy continue to be felt in Aboriginal communities today. In both countries, the removal of Aboriginal children from their families and communities is claimed to have initiated a ‘circle of abuse’ – a circle which is perpetuated today by the ethnocentricity of existing child welfare legislation, the policies and practices of the non-native child welfare authorities, and the continuing imperialist attitudes of key decision-makers, including the judiciary.6 It is the colonial underpinnings of both the past and present removals of Aboriginal children from their families and communities that makes self-government seem such a necessary and self-evident way forward. Self-government promises decolonization: it is through self-government that Aboriginal people believe they can reclaim their children and thereby their communities. As McGillivray explains, the Aboriginal child stands at the centre of these wider struggles.7 For Aboriginal communities, the fight to regain control over Aboriginal child welfare stands as a potent symbol of their ongoing resistance to colonial rule and the wider struggle for self-determination.

Critics of the past and present treatment of Aboriginal children at the hands of the non-native welfare authorities make one irrefutable point: the Australian and Canadian governments have fundamentally failed Aboriginal children, families and communities. The indictment of the Canadian and Australian authorities by highly respected bodies such as HREOC, the Manitoba Justice Inquiry and the Canadian Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples is telling. Although their conclusions have attracted some scepticism and even outright denial, particularly by right-wing commentators, their shocking and heart-wrenching findings concerning the removal and subsequent abuse of Aboriginal children have been widely recognized and accepted, including by those most directly involved.8 It is therefore clear, given this history, that it is vital to locate any discussion of the contemporary dynamics of Aboriginal child welfare within its proper historical and colonial context.9

Colonizing Aboriginal Children in Australia: Missions, Dormitories and Residential Schools

The ‘Protection’ of Full-Blood Aboriginal Children

The forced removal of Aboriginal children from their families and communities in Australia took a variety of different forms, depending on the particular policy in place within each individual state and whether the children involved were regarded as ‘full-blood’ or ‘half-blood’ by the relevant authorities. Although the manner of the removals differed between states, the basic objective remained the same. In the case of ‘full-blood’ aborigines, the colonial authorities, applying crude racist theories of social Darwinism, simply believed that, if left alone, the Aboriginal peoples would slowly decline and eventually die out.10 Although early attempts were made to convert Aboriginal peoples to an agricultural lifestyle, the devastation caused to Aboriginal communities by a combination of frontier violence, land dispossession, economic marginalization, poverty and disease, simply confirmed in the mind of the colonial authorities the Aborigines’ inherently weak and inferior status.11 A report by the first Aborigine Protection Board to be established in Victoria in 1860 observed that ‘the early extinction of the race was freely predicted’.12 Aboriginal people thus came to be regarded by the settlers as nothing more than a nuisance and an embarrassment; a temporary inconvenience in their quest for greater land and resources.13

Underpinned by what were clearly racist assumptions as to the backward, uncivilized nature of Aboriginal peoples, policies were introduced across Australia aimed at isolating and protecting the Aboriginal population from further violence at the hands of the settlers until their inevitable decline was complete. Pursuant to this ‘protectionist policy’, the Northern Territory and every state except Tasmania, introduced legislation creating ‘protected’ reserves, often controlled by missions, for the sole occupation of Aboriginal communities.14 These reserves were not aimed solely at the protection of the Aboriginal people.15 As J. W. Bleakley, Chief Protector and Director of Native Affairs in Queensland between 1913 and 1942 explained:

Few realise the value of work done by missions. Not only do they protect the child races from the unscrupulous white, but they help to preserve the purity of the white race from the grave social dangers that always threaten where there is a degraded race living in loose conditions at its back door.16

Responsibility for the protection of the Aboriginal communities living on reserves fell to the Chief Protector, the Director of Native Affairs (Queensland) or the Protection Board of the state or territory.17 Extensive powers were conferred on the Protectors allowing them to control every aspect of an Aboriginal person’s day-to-day life, including such things as the right to marry, seek employment and engage in social activities off the reserve.18 The Chief Protector was also empowered to move Aboriginal peoples between reserves and eventually to separate children from their families as he deemed fit.19

In Queensland, South Australia, Western Australia and the Northern Territory, the separation of large numbers of Aboriginal children from their families was facilitated by the appointment of the Chief Protector or Director of Native Affairs as the sole legal guardian of all Aboriginal children. Legal guardianship gave him total control over the children’s upbringing and, most importantly, the unfettered power to remove an Aboriginal child from the child’s family should he deem such removal necessary.20 The gradual extension of the Chief Protector’s powers over Aboriginal children in South Australia was typical of these developments. A Protector for indigenous peoples was appointed in 1844. However, until 1911 the Protector only enjoyed legal guardianship over Aboriginal children whose parents were dead or unknown.21 This meant the majority of Aboriginal children could only be removed from their families in accordance with general child protection provisions requiring a court to be satisfied that the child was ‘destitute’ or ‘neglected’.22 The Protector was dissatisfied with this limit on his powers and in 1911 successfully argued for his powers to be extended making him the automatic legal guardian of every Aboriginal and half-caste child. This conferred on him wide powers to move Aboriginal peoples between reserves as a disciplinary measure and to remove Aboriginal children from their families at will.23 This followed similar moves in Western Australia in 190524 and the Northern Territory in 1910.25 A similar model was eventually implemented in Queensland. The Industrial and Reformatory Schools Act 1865 (QLD) required an administrative finding of ‘neglect’ to be established before a child could be sent to an industrial school or reformatory on a mission.26 Although providing some protection for the family, in reality this did not constitute any great obstacle to removing the child where the Protector so desired. A combination of the marginalized socio-economic position of Aboriginal communities and a basic lack of understanding as to Aboriginal family structures and child-rearing practices, made removal by the Protection authorities on the grounds of ‘neglect’ a matter of routine.27 Nevertheless, in 1939 the Director of Native Affairs was appointed guardian of all Aboriginal children under the age of 21 giving him total control over all aspects of their lives and unfettered powers of removal. These wide powers of removal under the guardianship model persisted in Queensland until 1965, the Northern Territory until 1964, in Western Australia until 1963 and in South Australia until 1962.28

In Victoria and NSW, the Protector’s powers were less extensive but still allowed the separation of large numbers of Aboriginal children from their families. In Victoria, children were removed pursuant to the Aborigines Protection Act 1869 which until 1957 authorized the Aborigines Protection Board to make regulations dealing with ‘the care, custody and education of the children of aborigines’.29 Pursuant to these regulations, any child found to be neglected or left unprotected by its parents could be removed.30 This was supported by the general authority to order any Aboriginal male under the age of 14 years and any unmarried Aboriginal female under the age of 18 to ‘reside, and take their meals, and sleep in any building set apart for such purposes’.31 In NSW, the Aborigines Protection Board originally relied upon ‘persuasion’ to remove children from their families.32 In 1909, the NSW Board convinced the authorities to pass the Aborigines Protection Act 1909 which gave the Board the legal power, subject to independent scrutiny by the court, to remove the children on the grounds of ‘neglect’. However, in 1915, unhappy that removals were being made more difficult by the requirement to seek the consent of the court, the Board persuaded the government to amend the Act giving them unfettered power to remove the children without any necessity to establish neglect or seek the courts’ approval.33

Given the prevailing view amongst settlers that Aboriginal peoples were a dying race, the extensive use of these powers to remove Aboriginal children from their families is somewhat surprising. Yet, although convinced that ‘pure’ Aborigines could not survive, it was still felt desirable that Aboriginal children be schooled in the ways of civilized society, converted to Christianity, and shielded from Aboriginal traditions and lifestyle.34 In the words of one missionary:

The young require not only isolation from the outside world, but what proved still more difficult, separation from their own people. When the latter was possible a marked difference is noted in the manners, ways and point of view, as contrasted with those who were not so fortunate.35

In Victoria, the missions thus established schools where they attempted to ‘wean the children away from tribal influences’.36 Whilst not removed great distances from their communities, children were housed in separate dormitories on the reserve and only allowed extremely limited contact with their families.37 By the early 1930s, there were seven missions in the Northern Territory caring for about 1,100 Aborigines, with the children housed in dormitories.38 In Queensland, it is estimated that between 1908 and 1971, over 2,300 Aboriginal children were removed to dormitories on missions and settlements.39

The ‘Civilization’ and ‘Breeding Out’ of Mixed-Race Aboriginal Children

The approach taken to mixed-race Aboriginal children was much more aggressive. Although the number of ‘full-blood’ Aborigines was declining under the pressures of colonization, the number of mixed race children was increasing, in some places dramatically. This rise in the number of children who were of part European descent and yet continued to identify as Aboriginal was a matter of great concern for the colonial authorities. Within some states there were fears that the mixed race population would eventually outnumber the white population and thus become the dominant majority group.40 Other concerns centred on the need for this growing population, who unlike their ‘full-blood’ relatives showed no signs of natural decline, to be successfully integrated into the labour force so that they did not become an impossible financial burden on the state.41 There thus developed a plan to try and ‘breed out’ the Aboriginality from the mixed-race population. The idea was a simple one. It was thought that mixed-race Aboriginal children with the appropriate education and training could be integrated into mainstream society where, over time, through increased inter-racial marriage, the proportion of Aboriginal blood within each generation would decline and the mixed Aboriginal race would eventually be ‘merged’ with the white population.42 The lighter the child’s skin, the more successful it was felt this policy of ‘absorption’ would be.43 There was also a particular focus on Aboriginal girls. In New South Wales, the majority of children removed were female.44 In the Northern Territories, permission was required from the Chief Protector to marry, and his control over Aboriginal females was such that they remained under his control until they died unless they married a non-Aboriginal man.45

By 1937, the idea of absorption had evolved into that of assimilation: a policy approved on a national scale at the first Commonwealth-State Native Welfare Conference.46 Although based on similar prejudices, the assimilation policy was concerned less with the need to ‘breed out’ Aboriginality than with the need to provide Aboriginal people with the necessary education, training and skills to compete on an equal footing with their European counterparts.47 The provision of elementary education for half-caste children was regarded as of crucial importance.48 Consequently, from the 1950s, the Southern Australian and Western Australian governments allowed Aboriginal children to attend state schools, staying in government and mission run hostels, and being permitted to go home in the summer holidays provided they had a ‘suitable’ home to go to.49 However, although receiving a basic education, many children were also sent out to work at a young age as part of the retraining objective.50

Under both the absorption and assimilation models Aboriginal culture was treated with disdain: as an obstacle to progress. It was therefore believed to be of crucial importance in securing the success of the absorption and assimilation policies that mixed race children be isolated and protected from the culture, traditions, and generally ‘corrupting’ influence of their Aboriginal families. In New South Wales, Western Australia and the Northern Territory it was therefore resolved that light-skinned, mixed-race children should from a very young age be removed to ‘training institutions’ and kept totally separated from their families and communities in order to ensure their smooth transition into civilized European society.51 The first such ‘industrial school’ was established in the Northern Territory in 1899.52 The rationale behind these schools was clearly expressed in the debates leading up to the passing of the Aborigines Act 1905 in Western Australia:

[A] half-caste, who possesses few of the virtues and nearly all of the vices of whites, grows up to be a mischievous and very immoral subject … it may appear to be a cruel thing to tear an Aborigine child from its mother, but it is necessary in some cases to be cruel to be kind.53

Removing ‘half-caste’ Aboriginal children from their families and communities was perceived as the ‘key’ to the problem:

Children are removed from the evil influence of the Aboriginal camp with its lack of moral training and its risk of serious organic infectious disease. They are properly fed, clothed and educated as white children, they are subjected to constant medical supervision and in receipt of domestic and vocational training.54

During this early period of removals, half-caste Aboriginal children were typically removed from their families pursuant to the general protectionist and guardianship legislation in force in the state.55 As noted above, this typically gave the authorities the unfettered power to remove an Aboriginal child without subjecting their actions to the independent scrutiny of a court.56 Debate centred on the most appropriate age to remove a child. In South Australia views differed, with the Secretary of State Children’s Council arguing children should be removed at birth: ‘[i]f they are in the wurley for a week it is bad for them, but it is fatal for them to remain there for a year’.57 Others argued that children should be removed at a slighter later age when they required less care but were still ‘young enough to be attractive’.58 Little thought or consideration was given to the effects of these separations on either the children or their parents. In the words of one of the Protectors in Western Australia:

The half-caste is intellectually above the aborigine, and it is the duty of the State that they be given a chance to lead a better life than their mothers. I would not hesitate for one moment to separate any half-caste from its Aboriginal mother, no matter how frantic her momentary grief might be at the time. They soon forget their offspring.59

The removals were pursued with brutal indifference:

The assembled children were loaded into the truck very suddenly and their things thrown in hastily after them. The suddenness and the suppressed air of tension shocked the mothers and the children and they realised something was seriously wrong … Children began to cry and the mothers to wail and cut themselves … The tailgate was slammed shut and bolted and the truck screeched off with things still hanging over the back and mothers and other children running after it crying and wailing.60

The Experiences of Aboriginal Children Removed from their Families

The experiences of children placed in dormitories, missions, schools or training institutions away from their communities were singularly unhappy. Dormitories were overcrowded and lacking in basic provisions:

One [dormitory], measuring 22 feet by 12 feet is used as a sleeping room for about 25 boys. It has three small barred windows and a small closet at one end. The floor is sanded, and on this the boys sleep with a bluey between each two of them. They are locked in at sundown and released at 8 o’clock in the morning. The other is somewhat larger, and has a verandah closed in with strong pickets round two sides and a closet at the end. There are six small windows, two of them opening on to the closed in verandah. The floor of this is also sanded and on it about 30 girls sleep. The hygienic state of these dungeons during the extremely hot summer nights can better be imagined than described. The sand is renewed once every two weeks, which is quite necessary.61

Starved of money and resources by the state and territory authorities, children living in these institutions experienced conditions of extreme poverty, leading to severe hunger, malnutrition and disease.62 The conditions in Queensland were appalling:

There were no cots or beds in the children’s dormitories … and the protectress described how children slept on a single blanket on the ground with another blanket for warmth. Clothing was allocated only twice a year and was too limited to keep clean. Children were underfed, and a recent scheme to provide one meal a day of soup and bread had been discontinued … Normal sanitation facilities were non-existent on the settlement … Indeed the facilities there were so bad that … [the doctor there] considered the common usage of the bush as a toilet as the safest practice.63

Conditions were similarly bad in the Northern Territory. As one former resident recalls:

There’s where food was scarce again. Hardly anything … night time we used to cry with hunger, y’know, lice, no food. And we used to go out there to the town dump … we had to come and scrounge at the dump y’know, eating old bread and smashing tomato sauce bottles and licking them. Half of the time our food we got from the rubbish dump. Always hungry there.64

The ‘civilizing’ agenda was strictly adhered to in the various institutions. Aboriginal people were vilified and held in open contempt:

We were told our mother was an alcoholic and that she was a prostitute and she didn’t care about us. They [foster family] used to warn us that when we got older we’d have to watch it because we’d turn into sluts and alcoholics, so we had to be very careful. If you were white you didn’t have that dirtiness in you … It was in our breed, in us to be like that.65

Rules aimed at alienating Aboriginal children from their cultural roots were rigorously enforced. Any contact with members of the child’s Aboriginal family was strictly limited and controlled.66 Letters from the child’s family were often destroyed with children being told their parents were dead or had abandoned them.67 Aboriginal languages and the practice of Aboriginal customs and traditions were prohibited. Any infringement of the rules was severely punished:

Y’know, I can remember we used to just talk lingo. [In the Home] they used to tell us not to talk that language, that it’s devil’s language. And they’d wash our mouths with soap. We sorta had to sit down with Bible language all the time. So it sorta wiped out all our language that we knew.68

The infliction of severe physical and emotional abuse was a daily occurrence. Although some children speak of individual staff with affection and fondness,69 the treatment to which Aboriginal children were generally subjected is shocking. As the daughter of one child sent to the Cootamundra Institution in New South Wales recalls:

Cootamundra in those days was very strict and cruel. The home was overcrowded. Girls were coming and going all the time. The girls were taught reading, writing and arithmetic. All the girls had to learn to scrub, launder and cook. Mum remembered once a girl who did not move too quick. She was tied to the old bell post and belted continuously. She died that night, still tied to the post, no girl ever knew what happened to the body or where she was buried.70

The infliction of severe physical abuse was a common theme of witnesses to the Bringing Them Home Inquiry:

I’ve seen girls naked, strapped to chairs and whipped. We’ve all been through the locking up period, locked in dark rooms. I had a problem of fainting when I was growing up and I got belted every time I fainted and this is belted, not just on the hands or nothing. I’ve seen my sister dragged by the hair into those block rooms and belted because she’s trying to protect me … How could this be for my own good? Please tell me.71

Even Neville, the Chief Protector of Western Australia, found the levels of abuse in some homes to be unacceptable, recording in 1947:

One Superintendent I had, because he suspected him of some moral lapse, tarred and feathered a native, and he did the job thoroughly, calling the staff to see the rare bird he had captured … Another Manager I did appoint, an ex-Missionary, and a good man too, I had to dismiss for chaining girls to table legs … Indeed it was found necessary to provide by regulation for the abolition of “degrading” and injurious punishments and the practice of holding inmates up to ridicule, such as dressing them in old sacks or shaving girls’ heads.72

One in five witnesses to the Bringing Them Home Inquiry reported having been subjected to physical abuse.73 In a survey conducted by the Western Australia Aboriginal Legal Service that number was much higher, with 62.1 per cent of Aboriginal people forcibly removed as children stating that they had been physically abused.74 Sexual abuse was also disturbingly common. Although not specifically asked about sexual abuse, one in 10 boys and just over one in 10 girls alleged that they were sexually abused whilst in a children’s institution.75 Witnesses described the most horrific abuses by institutional staff:

There was tampering with the boys … the people who would come in to work with the children, they would grab the boys’ penises, play around with them and kiss them and things like this. These were the things that were done … It was seen to be the white man’s way of lookin’ after you. It never happened with an Aboriginal.76

Similar allegations were made with respect to the Kinchela Training Institute in New South Wales:

Kinchela was a place where they thought you were animals. You know it was like a place where they go around and kick us like a dog … It was just like a prison. Truthfully, there were boys having sex with boys … But these other dirty mongrels didn’t care. We had a manager who was sent to prison because he was doing it to a lot of the boys, sexual abuse. Nothing was done. There was a pommie bloke that was doing it. These attendants – if the boys told them, they wouldn’t even listen. It just happened … I don’t like talking about it.77

Attempted escapes were common.

Colonizing Aboriginal Children in Canada: The Residential Schools

As in Australia, the issue of Aboriginal child welfare in Canada is dominated by the history of the state owned, church administered, residential schools.78 Although there were important legal differences in the way in which the removals were effected in the two jurisdictions,79 the policy and practice of removing and institutionalizing Aboriginal children away from their families and communities was a common feature of the colonization of both countries. The colonial authorities in Canada, through tools of language, literature, religion and education, established a ferocious civilizing mission aimed at ‘eradicating the Savage Indian’ from the child – a policy which was strikingly similar to the absorption/assimilation policy employed in Australia with respect to ‘half-caste’ children. As in Australia, underpinning this policy of civilization was the belief that Aboriginal peoples were a dying race and the only way in which they could survive was to be assimilated into ‘superior’ European society.80 Duncan Campbell Scott, the Deputy Superintendent of Indian Affairs in Canada, speaking in the House of Commons in 1920, was absolutely clear as to the government’s objectives:

Our object is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic and there is no Indian question and no Indian department.81

Children were again the prime target of this civilizing mission. It was, for example, the view of Nicholas Davin, a journalist commissioned by the government in 1879 to report on the aggressive civilization policy in the United States, that ‘if anything is to be done with the Indian we must catch him young’.82 Education was seen as key.83

Nicholas Davin’s report strongly endorsed the use of industrial boarding schools to achieve assimilation, arguing that the removal of children away from the damaging influence of their ‘uncivilized’ parents was crucial to achieving their successful assimilation.84 In the succeeding decade the residential school system took hold,85 consisting of two major types of institution: the boarding school which was located on or near reserves and was intended to provide a basic education in reading, writing and arithmetic, as well as simple manual skills; and the large industrial school typically located in urban centres and intended to provide instruction in a trade, as well as a rudimentary English education.86 Between 1879 and 1946 the residential school system stood at the centre of the federal government’s assimilation policy. A total of 80 schools were built, with the number of Aboriginal children registered varying between 12 per cent and 37 per cent.87 McGillivray reports that in 1936, roughly 50 years after inception, 42 per cent of status Indian children in Manitoba were in a residential school; 3 per cent in Quebec; 36 per cent in Ontario; 77 per cent in Saskatchewan; and 98 per cent in Alberta.88

In the post-Second World War era the federal government’s policy on Indian education underwent significant change.89 The dominant view emerged that the residential schools should be closed and Indian children integrated into the provincial school system.90 Yet, despite this shift in official policy, it took nearly 40 years before the last of the residential schools was closed.91 During this period, the schools increasingly came to operate as boarding homes for the numerous Indian children deemed by officials as unable to return to their homes and families because of the risk of ‘neglect’.92

Unlike the forced removal of Aboriginal children in Australia where strong legal tools such as guardianship were routinely employed, the process of effecting the removal of Indian children in Canada relied, at least initially, on less coercive measures. Persuasion rather than force was the preferred approach. For many years the government resisted church demands to make school attendance compulsory.93 Regulations issued by the Department of Indian Affairs in 1894 permitted the Indian agent to place a ‘neglected child’ in care by force if necessary.94 However, the use of this provision was discouraged. In 1920, during the administration of Deputy Superintendent Duncan Campbell Scott, the Indian Act was amended to make school attendance for all children aged between seven and 15 years old compulsory. Non-compliance with this provision was punishable by fine or imprisonment although evidence suggests enforcement measures were rarely invoked.95 The government’s reluctance to adopt coercive measures meant the schools remained responsible for recruiting their own students. School officials would be sent out on recruitment missions, assisted in varying degrees by the Indian agents on reserve.96 Some Aboriginal parents welcomed the schools for the perceived benefits of their children receiving a Christian education or as the fulfilment of treaty promises on education.97 However, there was also widespread resistance to sending their children away.98 School officials, under immense pressure to recruit, therefore employed increasingly ‘bizarre and questionable practices’.99 Orphans were targeted and bribery and kidnapping became commonplace.100

If the process of effecting the removal of Aboriginal children from their families differed between the two jurisdictions, their experiences of separation were strikingly similar. As in Australia, Canadian Indian children were placed in racially segregated residential facilities many miles from their reserves so as to isolate and ‘protect’ them from any ‘contaminating influences’.101 They were taught to be ashamed of their ‘savage’ history and culture, punished for speaking their native languages, whilst the ‘achievements’ and ‘virtues’ of non-native society were promoted and glorified.102 As described by the son of one former resident, the objective of ridding Aboriginal children of their language and culture was often pursued with vicious and brutal determination:

The elimination of language has always been a primary stage in a process of cultural genocide. This was the primary function of the residential school. My father, who attended Alberni Indian residential school for four years in the twenties was physically tortured by his teachers for speaking Tseshaht: they pushed sewing needles through his tongue, a routine punishment for language offenders … The needle tortures suffered by my father affected all the family (I have six brothers and sisters). My dad’s attitude became, “why teach my children Indian if they are going to be punished for speaking it?” so he would not allow my mother to speak to us in his presence. I never learned to speak my own language. I am now therefore truly a “dumb Indian”.103

Yet against all expectations of the architects of the system, Indian children did not graduate from the residential schools as ‘well-educated’ ‘civilized’ little citizens of white Canada.104 Cultural identity could not be so easily erased and chronic under-funding meant that educational goals would never be met. Indeed, the education provided to the Indian students was grossly deficient. Moreover, the deplorable physical condition of the schools, lack of sanitation, clothing and food made survival a daily struggle.105 Disease ran rampant through the schools and children were literally dying in their hundreds and thousands.106 For many of the children who survived, the residential school experience was marked by horrific physical, sexual and emotional abuse.107 In many cases, school officials appear to have literally attempted to beat the Indian out of the child.

Initiating a Circle of Abuse: The Legacy of Removals

Understanding the continuing trauma caused to Aboriginal families and communities by the child removal policies of the past is key to understanding the complexity of the difficulties experienced by many Aboriginal families and children today. The Bringing Them Home report describes the long-term effects of the removals as ‘multiple and profoundly disabling’.108 It continues:

Psychological and emotional damage renders many people less able to learn social skills and survival skills. Their ability to operate successfully in the world is impaired causing low educational achievement, unemployment and consequent poverty. These in turn cause their own emotional distress, leading some to perpetrate violence, self-harm, substance abuse or anti-social behaviour.109

Already struggling from the socio-economic marginalization that accompanied the dispossession of their land and resources, the removal of Aboriginal children and the resulting pressure on Aboriginal cultures exacerbated the growing despondency, high levels of mental illness,110 and alcohol and drug abuse within many Aboriginal communities. In its evidence to the Bringing Them Home Inquiry, the Sydney Aboriginal Mental Health Unit identified amongst its patients, ‘major depressive disorder and use of alcohol and other drugs to ease feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, marginalisation, discrimination and dispossession, leading to breakdown in relationships, domestic violence and abuse’.111 The Unit concluded that the forcible removal policies were the ‘principal cause’ of these problems.112 Similarly, the alienation of Aboriginal children from both ‘white European’ and Aboriginal society is argued to have contributed to the high rates of suicide amongst Aboriginal people, particularly amongst Aboriginal youth. The continuing disproportionate institutionalization of Aboriginal people in penal institutions as a result of the high levels of delinquency and more serious criminal offending amongst this group is also attributed to the ongoing effects of child removals.113 As the Bringing Them Home report acknowledges, the complex socio-economic difficulties experienced by Aboriginal communities as a result of colonization makes it impossible to identify the policy of forced removals as solely responsible for the current problems. However, it goes on to point out that ‘childhood removal is a very significant cause both in its distinctive horror and in its capacity to break down resilience and render its victims perpetually vulnerable’.114 It is important to appreciate that this is not just a matter of individual trauma. Individual trauma at this level of severity can profoundly affect the wider health of a community. Indeed, it is suggested that the current dysfunctional behaviour in many Aboriginal communities is grounded in the communities’ unresolved grief associated with multiple layers of trauma suffered over many generations – trauma caused by years of living with the institutionalized violence, racism, dispossession and poverty of colonialism.115

One of the most damaging consequences of the removal of Aboriginal children was the effect, as indeed was intended, on the continuity of Aboriginal culture at both the individual and community level. As it was put in the Bringing Them Home report, ‘[c]ulture, language, land and identity were to be stripped from the children in the hope that the traditional law and culture would die by losing their claim on them and their sustenance of them’.116 Aboriginal children removed from their families and subjected to the daily vilification of Aboriginal people and culture learned to despise everything so essential to their sense of identity.117 Aboriginal children thus grew to be ashamed of their native heritage. The confusion and despair caused by this loss of cultural identity was deeply felt:

Most of us girls were thinking white in the head but were feeling black inside. We weren’t black or white. We were a very lonely, lost and sad displaced group of people. We were taught to think and act like a white person, but we didn’t know how to think and act like an Aboriginal. We didn’t know anything about our culture. We were completely brainwashed to think only like a white person. When they went to mix in white society, they found they were not accepted [because] they were Aboriginal. When they went and mixed with Aborigines, some found they couldn’t identify with them either, because they had too much white ways in them. So that they were neither black nor white. They were simply a lost generation. I know. I was one of them.118

So effective were the institutions in their denigration of Aboriginal culture that many removed children came to despise and fear Aboriginal people:

“Your family don’t care about you anymore, they wouldn’t have given you away. They don’t love you. All they are, are just dirty drunken blacks.” You heard this daily … When I come out of the home and come to Redfern here looking for the girls, you see a koori coming towards you, you cross the street, you run for your life, you’re terrified.119

The problems caused by this cultural dislocation were perpetuated when children who had experienced the pain of removal themselves became parents. Alienated from their roots, many of this new generation of Aboriginal parents would not, or could not, pass down their culture and traditions to their own children.120 The incapacity of an Aboriginal community to perpetuate its culture through its children thus resulted in a damaging cultural void.121 On a more individual level, developing attachments and forming close loving relationships was difficult for removed children.122 The institutionalization of Aboriginal children deprived them of any positive models of parenting and family life:

We had been brought up on the surrogate mother of the institution and that whole lifestyle, which did not prepare us at all for any type of family life or life whereby in the future we would be surviving or fending for ourselves; and then the survival skills that we needed in order to survive in the mainstream community, because those survival skills are certainly not skills that you learn in a major institution. And the whole family value system wasn’t there and then the practice that comes with that wasn’t there and put in place.123

What these children did know from their experiences in the missions, training institutions and residential schools was raising children through violence and abuse:

The boarding schools taught us violence. Violence was emphasised through physical, corporal punishment, strappings, beatings, bruising and control. We learned to understand that this was power and control.124

This attack at the heart of family life affected the whole community. The violent regime of the missions, dormitories and residential schools in both Australia and Canada initiated what has been termed a ‘circle of abuse’ within Aboriginal communities, causing amongst other things, a community-wide breakdown in traditional methods of child-rearing and parenting, including the central role played by the extended family and kinship group:

For many victims of the residential school system, not only were cultural values lost, but the experience of family relationships and the natural process of parenting were lost as well. In their place was substituted an example of child care characterised by authoritarianism, often to the point of physical abuse, a lack of compassion and, in many cases, sexual abuse. For those victims, the residential school system blurred natural limits on what normally would develop as mature love and sexual relationships.125

The high incidence of sexual abuse experienced by children removed from their families has had particularly tragic inter-generational effects. It is reported that up to two-thirds of children sexually abused as children experience difficulties parenting their own children and, when under stress, are vulnerable to becoming abusers themselves.126 In some Aboriginal communities, rather than abuse, the problem is a lack of discipline.127 The use of physical punishment as employed in the various institutions is rejected as unacceptable according to traditional methods of child-rearing.128 However, with the loss of traditional knowledge and culture, there is often little on which Aboriginal parents can draw other than these institutional models. This leads to a potentially problematic ‘discipline vacuum’:

I have a problem with smacking kids. I won’t smack them. I won’t control them. I’m just scared of everything about myself. I just don’t know how to be a proper parent sometimes. I can never say no, because I think they’re going to hate me. I remember hating [foster mother] so I never want the kids to hate me. I try to be perfect.129

The result of these inter-generational problems is a repeat pattern of removals. Many Aboriginal parents who were themselves removed as children experience difficulties with parenting and consequently face the removal of their own children, this time by social workers operating under general child welfare law. A survey by the Aboriginal Legal Service of Western Australia of Aboriginal people who had been forcibly removed as children revealed that a generation later more than one-third had had their own children removed.130

Entrenching Colonization: The Non-Native Child Welfare System

The missions, dormitories, training institutions and residential schools stand as the most potent symbol of the suffering and devastation caused to Aboriginal peoples by the imperialist policies of the Australian and Canadian governments. Whilst arguments continue over appropriate reparations for the victims,131 official apologies for the removals and subsequent abuse suffered by Aboriginal children have now been issued by the Canadian and Australian governments and a number of the religious organizations involved.132 It is, however, a sobering fact that whilst the residential schools and dormitories may have closed, the grossly disproportionate removal of Aboriginal children from their families and communities continued. The ‘circle of abuse’ initiated by the missions, dormitories, training institutions and residential schools did not end with their closure, for in their place arrived a new and seemingly more benevolent colonial force: the professional social worker applying general child welfare law.

The early experiences of Aboriginal peoples with the general child welfare system were almost entirely negative. The ethnocentricity entrenched at the heart of the system created a hostile, alien and deeply damaging environment for Aboriginal families. Charges of cultural genocide have again been made against the system.133 Indeed, in 2009 a class action on behalf of 16,000 Aboriginal children was launched in Ontario against the federal government alleging that between the years of 1965 and 1984 Aboriginal children were subjected to a provincial child welfare system intended to ‘systematically eradicate the Aboriginal culture, society, language, customs, traditions, and spirituality of the children’ – in other words, that they were subjected to a ‘deliberate program of “identity genocide of children”’.134

The remainder of this chapter focuses on the failings of the non-native child welfare system between the 1950s and the early 1990s.135 These failings are particularly instructive as to the contemporary challenges facing Aboriginal peoples. The repeat pattern of removals, as legitimized by the courts, reveals the extent to which the culturally rooted norms and practices of non-native society became embedded within the child welfare system, raising grave doubts as to its capacity for change to enable it to respond more effectively to the cultural needs of Aboriginal children and families. Despite the reform efforts of the last 15 years or so, much of the analysis within this chapter could be applied with equal force to contemporary practice within the social work profession and the courts.136 Indeed, it will strike a deep chord with the many Aboriginal families still embroiled within the non-native child welfare system.

The Transfer of Responsibility to the Non-Native Child Welfare System


In 1940, NSW became the first jurisdiction to remove control over Aboriginal children from the Aborigine’s Protection Board and transfer it to the general state child welfare authorities. In order to remove an Aboriginal child in New South Wales after 1940 the Board therefore had to show to the satisfaction of a court that the child was ‘neglected’, ‘destitute’ or ‘uncontrollable’ in accordance with the Child Welfare Act 1939.137 Towards the end of the 1940s, other jurisdictions began to take similar steps, abandoning their ‘protectionist’ approach and bringing Aboriginal children within the scope of the general child welfare legislation. The process was not, however, complete until the late 1960s. Legal guardianship over Aboriginal children was restored to their parents in South Australia in 1962, the Northern Territories in 1964, in Western Australia in 1963, and in Queensland in 1965.138