Saying Sorry—beginning the process of Telling Truth

Today is National Sorry Day. It begins National Reconciliation Week, which runs from 27 May to 3 June each year. This week was initiated in 1996 by Reconciliation Australia, to celebrate Indigenous history and culture in Australia and promote discussions and activities which would foster reconciliation.

The dates of National Reconciliation Week hold special historical significance. On 26 May 1997, the Bringing Them Home report was tabled in Federal Parliament. This report addressed them impacts of the fact that in the late 19th century and throughout the 20th century, Australian government policies resulted in many Stolen Generations, in which thousands of Indigenous children were separated, often forcibly, from their families, with the aim of removing them from their culture and turning them into “white Australians”.

Because of this, the date 26 May carries great significance for the Stolen Generations, as well as for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, and its supporters among non-indigenous Australians. The word sorry is used in First Nations cultures in relation to the rituals surrounding death—the process of grieving is often call Sorry Business. So sorry indicates an acknowledgement of loss and offers empathic understanding to those who grieve.

Sorry Day is an annual event that has been held around the continent on 26 May since 1998, to remember and commemorate the mistreatment of the country’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People.

Mick Dodson and Ronald Wilson,
Commissioners of the Bringing Them Home Report
at its launch date on 26 May 1997

27 May marks the anniversary of the 1967 referendum in Australia, which gave the vote to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, while 3 June marks the anniversary of the 1992 judgement by the High Court on the Mabo v Queensland case.

Sorry Day (26 May) and the National Apology (made in Federal Parliament on 13 February 2008), the 1967 referendum, the 1992 Mabo decision, along with the Wik decision on native title (delivered by the High Court on 23 December 1996), are considered to be key events in addressing the historic mistreatment of indigenous Australians, and in taking steps towards reconciliation and restorative justice.

But these were only steps. The path still lies ahead. We need to take more steps, walking together, to foster deeper relationships, advocate for a more embedded restoration of justice, work for wider and more lasting reconciliation within our communities. The current discussion is focussed on a process that will lead to a referendum on the proposal that the Australian Constitution recognise the First Peoples as custodians of the land from millennia before the British Invasion and colonisation of 1788, and the establishment of a permanent Voice to the federal parliament.

This step is but one on a pathway that stretches ahead of us, well into the succeeding generations still to come in Australia. We need to hear and understand the Truth that was set forth in the 1997 Report, and indeed to listen to the Truth that is being stated by First Peoples leaders in our own time, and be willing to respond with sorry and with actions that lead to justice for the First Peoples of this continent and it’s surrounding islands.

The theme for National Reconciliation Week 2023 is Be A Voice for Generations. It is a timely reminder of the importance of allowing the First Peoples of this nation to speak—and for all of us to listen, pay attention, and listen to their Voice. This is a task for everyone in Australia. To seek reconciliation, we need to speak together, commit together, and act together. We are all in this together. May we tread that pathway with compassion and intent.


Click to access 150520-Sorry-Day.pdf

The picture montage shows a Sorry Day poster, celebrations after the 1967 referendum, Eddie Mabo who brought the High Court case that was resolved in 1992, Gladys Tybingoompa dancing outside the high court in Canberra on 23 December 1996 following the Wik people’s native title win, and the front page of a national newspaper reporting the National Apology in 2008.