Prompted by today’s apology from Australian PM Kevin Rudd, Gordon Brown is to say sorry to the estimated 150,000 British children who were shipped off to Canada and Australia between the twenties and the fifties.
According to Mr Rudd:
“We look back with shame that many of these little ones who were entrusted to institutions and foster homes instead were abused physically, humiliated cruelly, violated sexually. And we look back with shame at how those with power were allowed to abuse those who had none.”
Fair enough. The children were owed a duty of care and if people abused positions of power then apologies and perhaps more are certainly due. The Australian government has hinted that some of the children were treated as badly as slaves and some of the institutions were worse than prisons.
The Australian PM also said:
“Sorry that as children you were taken from your families and placed in institutions where so often you were abused . . . Sorry for the tragedy, the absolute tragedy, of childhoods lost.”
It seems to me that there is a slight problem here. Is Rudd apologising to all the children who were transported or just to those who were abused? (He surely can’t be saying that they were all abused – can he?) And if he is apologising to all the children isn’t there then an apology due to all adopted children anywhere for being taken from their birth families? Or is it the very fact of the transportation to another country (if not culture) (which has obvious resonances with both slavery and the kinder transports) which is the major problem?
Perhaps an apology is not so much a problem for Rudd as it will be for Gordon Brown. British agencies merely sent the children abroad, just as they took children from (for instance) Irish Catholic mothers and placed them with English families. It was in Australian and Canadian institutions where the children were abused (New Zealand apparently had a better record of settling children with foster parents rather than putting them in institutions. )
BBC News 24 last night interviewed a woman with a strong Australian accent who was in floods of tears at the life she had” lost” in England. Today some of the transportees marched to the British embassy wearing black armbands. There are demands for reparations for all. Would I be cruel to suggest this is a little over-emotional and a product of wishful thinking?
Now I don’t mean to be trite. I was adopted as a child myself and I know how hard it can be to communicate the experience to anyone who has never needed to question their roots. Although I never felt there was anyone “missing” from my life I do remember early adolescent attempts to find an identity (embarrassingly for a few weeks as an 11 year old I decided for some reason that I’d be Swiss and walked around wearing badges and a very unfashionable red woolly hat which sported the flag of that country.) It’s all laughable now, but I do recognise the lengths that an adoptee can go to as a child in order to feel that there is somewhere that they belong. But being able to do that makes me ask all the more strongly as to whether these people are not more nostalgic for the fantasies of their youth than for “relatives” and a country that they have never met and have never seen? Is it cruel or wrong to suspect that these Australians and Canadians (for that, to me, is exactly what they are) are engaged in a “grass is greener” style fantasy which they should have dealt with many years ago?
What do you think?