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Australia to apologize to Aborigines for injustice: how helpful?

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd says the gesture will remove a "blight on the nation's soul."

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Candles set up outside Australia’s Parliament House in Canberra spell “Sorry, the first step.” They refer to Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s apology to Aborigines, planned for Wednesday, for decades of forced assimilation. Some say Aborigines deserve payouts for their hardship.

Mark Graham/AP

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Aborigines who were taken from their families as children in a policy of forced racial assimilation will receive a historic apology from Australia's new government Wednesday.

In what will be the first parliamentary act of his government, center-left prime minister Kevin Rudd will fulfill an election campaign promise when he stands up in parliament in Canberra, the capital, and says sorry to the so-called Stolen Generation. The Labor leader said the apology would remove a "blight on the nation's soul" and had the overwhelming support of Australians.

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Supporters say it is of similar magnitude to America's apology in 1988 for interning Japanese citizens during World War II.

Mr. Rudd's speech will be shown on giant outdoor screens in Australia's two largest cities, Melbourne and Sydney, and aired live on two national television networks. The red, black, and gold Aboriginal flag will fly from landmarks across the country, including Sydney's iconic Harbor Bridge.

About 13,000 people today identify themselves as either members of the Stolen Generation or relatives who were adversely affected by the long-standing policy. Based on the premise that "full-blood" Aborigines were a race headed for extinction, up to 100,000 mixed-race children were taken from their parents between 1910 and 1970. The children, some of them babies, were often snatched from sobbing mothers by policemen or government officials.

They were then placed in the care of white foster parents or sent to institutions to be raised as domestic servants for white families. Many encountered sexual abuse, neglect, and cruelty.

Rudd's decision to apologize contrasts with the attitude of his conservative predecessor, John Howard, who during 11 years in office insisted that today's Australians had no need to atone for past injustices.

Still, many Australians feel it is long overdue.

"It's a sign of the maturing of Australia as a nation. I think it will go down as one of the most significant moments in this country's history," says Jason Glanville, strategy director of Reconciliation Australia, an independent agency set up to improve relations between black and white Australians.

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For Debra Hocking, Rudd's words will go a little way toward healing the terrible wounds of her past. A mixed-race Aborigine from Tasmania, she was removed from her parents as a baby, along with her four siblings. The children were split up, with Ms. Hocking sent to a foster home where she suffered years of abuse.

"I was 18 months old when I was taken away, and I didn't meet my mum until I was 20. I grew up not even knowing her name – the authorities wouldn't tell me," she recalls. "Eventually I tracked her down but by then she was gravely ill. We met twice, but two weeks later she died."

She says there was no evidence of neglect in her family. The policy "was bizarre, and very cruel," she adds. "Perhaps it was a deliberate attempt to breed out the Aboriginal race, by splitting up families."

A member of a lobby group, the Stolen Generations Alliance, Hocking believes the government's apology is of great symbolic importance. "In just a few minutes Rudd will change the history of this country. It will open the eyes of a lot of Australians and people around the world."

Not all Aborigines agree, arguing that the apology won't improve their often appalling living conditions.

In what has been described as a national disgrace and international embarrassment, the life expectancy of Australia's 450,000 indigenous people is 17 years shorter than the rest of the population. They suffer shocking levels of alcoholism, child sexual abuse, and domestic violence.

The apology will be a largely meaningless gesture, says Leo Abbott, a community leader and member of the Aranda tribe in the Northern Territory. "The proper way to say sorry is to fix up health, education, employment, and housing for Aboriginal communities," he says.

Australia's political leaders are also divided over the apology, with some conservative MPs uncomfortable with the label of Stolen Generation. They maintain that many mixed race children were removed for their own safety from violent or neglectful families.

The opposition's spokesman on Aboriginal affairs, Tony Abbott, insists that many of the removals were carried out with the best of intentions. "Yes, some kids were stolen and this is shameful, but many were helped and some were rescued," he said.

The issue of compensation is also highly contentious. Some Aboriginal leaders have called for the setting up of a compensation fund of about $900 million or more, but the government has so far refused. Reconciliation Australia hopes the government will eventually accept the idea of payouts, as some Australian states have done. "These people were done a grave injustice. Compensation is considered to be part of any reparations process," says Mr. Glanville.