Reconciliation: A never-ending journey

27 May 2017

 Reconciliation: A never-ending journey



Australia has been on a conscious journey towards reconciliation between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and the rest of the Australian community for the past 50 years. For Christians the journey is founded on our belief in the dignity of each human being, the commandment to love our neighbour and our call to work for justice and peace.

From 1788, the arrival of the English, with their different way of life and the policies they established, forced changes to the culture and lifestyle of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. These changes continue to have a devastating impact on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders today. Knowing about this history will assist students and staff in their understanding of issues such as:

  • Aboriginal connection to the land
  • Aboriginal dispossession and displacement
  • Past government policies 
  • Stolen Generations
  • Social Justice: addressing disadvantages suffered by Aboriginal peoples in terms of health, education, housing, employment etc.

As we approach National Reconciliation Week (27 May – 3 June), it is timely to reflect on the journey towards reconciliation, of the nation and of Catholic education. From the shores of our reflections we can set out to continue the journey.

Reconciliation – From the beginning

According to the Reconciliation Australia website, the history of the reconciliation movement began with the 1967 referendum, which enabled Australians to vote on 'clauses in the Australian Constitution that discriminated against Indigenous Australians'. Ninety per cent of Australians voted to remove these discriminatory clauses. But it was not until 2 September 1991 that the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation (CAR) was established. Its purpose was to address historical matters that continued to impact on the present-day lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and to promote a process of reconciliation between Indigenous peoples and the Australian community as a whole. It identified eight key issues in the reconciliation process:

  • Understanding country
  • Improving relationships
  • Valuing cultures
  • Sharing history
  • Addressing disadvantage
  • Custody levels
  • Destiny (Aboriginal people controlling their own destiny)
  • Formal documentation of the process.

In 2000, the CAR was replaced with Reconciliation Australia (RA), which continued the work of promoting reconciliation.

In 2016 Reconciliation Australia released The State of Reconciliation in Australia. The report highlights the achievements of the reconciliation process in the 25 years since the CAR was established. In order to measure Australia’s progress toward reconciliation, five interrelated dimensions of reconciliation were identified:

  • race relations
  • equality and equity
  • unity
  • institutional integrity
  • historical acceptance.

These dimensions now frame RA’s vision for reconciliation in Australia, and they provide a helpful way to examine and explore reconciliation. They point to what Senator Rachel Siewert has called ‘unfinished business’ that is an obstacle to progress in a number of areas.

Catholic Education and Reconciliation

Catholic education in the Archdiocese of Melbourne has been supporting and promoting the reconciliation journey for many years. In the 1990s particularly, Catholic Education Melbourne (then the Catholic Education Office Melbourne) produced a number of resources to assist Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Melbourne to embed Aboriginal perspectives across the curriculum. Mindful that the CAR’s time was to end in 2000 the CEOM responded with two key initiatives:

The National Catholic Education Commission (NCEC) also released Education for Justice, Truth and Reconciliation in 1998, a statement which presented signposts for how to forge new partnerships with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples such as the following:

All involved in Catholic education are urged to engage with present and future challenges. These will include the search for common ground and mutual understanding, learning to 'walk in the other’s shoes’…

Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Melbourne have progressed from first tentative steps of ‘having a go at making things right’ to giant, confident strides acknowledging history and making ‘friends’ with that past. On their way they have eliminated barriers that were built on fear and created new structures based on truth. They have been trail-blazers in seeking justice and peace for all.

  • Schools fly the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags like beacons showing their commitment to the Aboriginal story of the land their school is built upon. A simple act makes a big statement.
  • Aboriginal gardens and acknowledgment-of-country plaques flourish.
  • Many schools are FIRE Carrier schools, embracing the Friends Igniting Reconciliation through Education project, initiated through the Opening the Doors Foundation, which is part of Aboriginal Catholic Ministry.
  • Many Catholic secondary schools have established relationships and partnerships with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and schools across Australia. Aboriginal perspectives have become part of school business, part of school life.

These activities actively bring to life the words Pope John Paul II spoke in Alice Springs in 1986, words echoed by Pope Francis in his Papal Letter to the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Catholic Council (NATSICC) in 2016:
"Your culture, which shows the lasting genius and dignity of your race, must not be allowed to disappear. Do not think that your gifts are worth so little that you should no longer bother to maintain them. Share them with each other and teach them to your children. Your songs, your stories, your paintings, your dances, your languages, must never be lost."

Schools have put into action Christ’s commandment of love (Mt 22: 37–39): ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind’ and ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’. The crowning reconciliation moment is solidified in John 15: 12, ‘Love one another as I have loved you’. The Catholic Education Week 2017 theme – Moved by the love of Christ – is another inspiration for being active in promoting reconciliation.


Continuing the journey

The following Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander days of significance provide occasions to give prominence to the reconciliation journey in the school community:

  • 13 February – Anniversary of the Apology (2008)
  • 16 March – National Close the Gap Day
  • 26 May – National Sorry Day (in response to the Bringing Them Home Report)
  • 27 May – Anniversary of the 1967 Referendum
  • 27 May – 3 June – National Reconciliation Week
  • 3 June – Mabo Day (anniversary of the High Court of Australia’s judgment in 1992 in the Mabo case)
  • 1 July – Coming of the Light (marks the day for Torres Strait Islanders when the London Missionary Society first arrived in the Torres Strait)
  • 2–9 July – NAIDOC Week (theme for 2017 is ‘Our Languages Matter’)
  • 4 August – National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children’s Day
  • 9 August – International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples
  • 6 September – Indigenous Literacy Day
  • 13 September – Anniversary of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Students today are the inheritors of this reconciliation journey. They have shown their commitment to be active agents of change and living examples of the gospel imperative to love others as Christ has loved us. They are our future voice for peace and justice. 

National Reconciliation Week Website