Most APS members will always remember where they were on Wednesday 13th February 2008, when Prime Minister Kevin Rudd delivered the national Apology to the Stolen Generations in the first sitting of the new Federal Parliament. InPsych interviewed two APS members who were inside the Great Hall of Parliament House in Canberra about their experience of the big day, and their take-home messages for psychologists.

Joyleen Koolmatrie is a descendant of the Ngarrindjeri and Kayteye people in South Australia. She is now based in Perth, and works primarily with Aboriginal people delivering psychological services in the area of loss, grief and trauma.

How did you come to be in Canberra on February 13 for the Apology?

I am not a member of the Stolen Generations, but I have been through the pain of not having family or culture, and not living in my community. I have been counselling people from the Stolen Generations for more than ten years. The Australian Government
Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs invited me to gather a team of counsellors to assist Stolen Generations members who might need support on the day. There was a tent erected with counsellors, some were in the hotel, and others were roaming around, but we didn't have much to do as it turned out. I just roamed around seeing that people were OK; nobody needed formal counselling, there were just some who were emotional on the day. I think there should be some follow up though - help is more likely to be needed when you return home and come back to earth.

What was the feeling there on the day?

It was a happy day, with lots of tears and mixed emotions. We had all been wondering whether this was for real or was it a political ploy that we would turn our backs on? These were the feelings beforehand, so there was big relief during the speech, and not a dry eye in the room. I was in the Great Hall, standing in a row of people who all held hands, and the emotions just came tumbling out. I thought, "I don't need this ‘sorry' from the PM for myself, I've moved on, I'm here for others...". Yeah, right! The strength of my own reaction confirmed for me that there needs to be a ‘sorry'. The fact that it was done in the first sitting of the new Parliament, starting with the Lord's Prayer - it made us think, this is a man with a godly heart, and now our nation can have hope.

What did it mean for you as an Indigenous Australian?

As Indigenous people, everyone is in a different place - some can still be cynical, but it has come at a good time for me. The words he said went beyond my expectations, so I was quite emotional, and sobbing in parts. Reflecting afterwards, I think the validation has allowed me to move on. That the PM said ‘sorry' was an admittance that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children were taken from their families and did suffer abuse - this acknowledgement allows healing to begin for some and continue for others. There was a freedom as we came out of Parliament House - it didn't matter who you were, I had never experienced that before. Even the eucalyptus trees smelt stronger, as if a healing had started in the land. Some of the traditional people said the heartbeat of the land had changed.

What immediate and/or longer term implications does the Apology have for the psychology profession, and for us as APS members?

Many psychologists still haven't got much understanding of these issues. Psychologists need to ask themselves where they are at with their attitudes. They tend to range between support for the Apology and questioning why ‘sorry' needs to happen. If they don't yet understand, they can do more harm than good. Psychologists often draw parallels with other forms of trauma, but Indigenous people have lost a whole culture as well as family members, not to mention separation from land, and loss of language. So a lot more training is needed. Since the Apology, we may see an increase in racial crimes in this country - it started that same evening. With the barest service from a flight attendant or in the cafeteria, some people were saying "Good on you", while others just glared. I've been aware of an atmosphere where people are either with you or they're not. They can no longer just ignore you. I've been getting cold stares from strangers as if to say "You got an apology from the PM". When I was in the supermarket recently I got an elbow that wasn't an accident. I just turn and say "Have a nice day". I've worked through my stuff and I have a certain resilience, but some of the younger ones haven't been through their own hurt enough to know where to put the problem. But I still think the Apology was worth it - we can allow people to heal now. If there hadn't been an admittance, a ‘sorry', the healing couldn't start. I'd like to see the APS work with Aboriginal people, not just the ones who are psychologists. Acknowledge the Indigenous psychologists' group, ask "How can we work alongside you?". Listen, implement, don't just ‘consult' and do what you were going to do anyway. Sometimes the organisational rules can get in the way. They don't need to be strictly adhered to.

Kerrie Kelly is a non-Indigenous psychologist who has worked in close collaboration with Indigenous mentors, colleagues and communities on a range of projects, including the first crosscultural mental health training program conducted in Australia. She is currently co-ordinating an APS project to identify innovative models and resources that increase mental health awareness and help-seeking in urban, regional and remote Indigenous communities.

How did you come to be in Canberra on February 13 for the Apology?

I was attending to support a friend and mentor - someone I greatly admire - who is a member of the Stolen Generations and was going to be involved in the event. I was there with her family members. The Apology was going to be a momentous event in the life of this family and I felt privileged to be included. We were in the Great Hall at Parliament House.

What was the feeling there on the day?

Everyone we met - Indigenous and non-Indigenous - seemed to share the same feelings of hopeful anticipation. More than a thousand people stared transfixed at the screens while the Prime Minister made the Apology. It seemed the entire crowd had let their guard down and was emotionally vulnerable at the time the Apology was made - there was no cynicism, no holding back, just simple, pure, hope. When Brendan Nelson spoke, everyone listened for a time, then, as if of one mind, all stood and turned their backs, and started slow clapping to drown out his speech. When he finished, the crowd turned around again and the same positive feeling was restored. Everyone gave a standing ovation at the end. When we went outside Aboriginal flags were flying on the flagpoles and John Butler was singing 'From little things, big things grow'. There were hugs, smiles and tears everywhere.

What did it mean for you as a non-Indigenous Australian?

The Apology banished the ‘shadow' standing between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, and it allows us to face each other honestly and respectfully.

What immediate and/or longer term implications does the Apology have for the psychology profession, and for us as APS members?

I have a sense that those who weren't part of the large gatherings may not realise what a momentous event it was. Something big and deep happened. I have heard hardened journalists say they were lost for words to describe what happened. One described it as a ‘national transformative moment'. I think we will talk about Australia ‘before the Apology' and ‘after the Apology'. I believe it is now imperative for all psychologists who have not done so, to obtain a copy of the Bringing Them Home report and read it. Psychologists may find themselves the first point of contact for those who (post-Apology) now feel ‘safe enough' to start their healing journey, and the onus is on all of us to be fully informed, and ready to respond appropriately.

Thanks to Heather Gridley for conducting these interviews.