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Cecil Bowden and fellow members of Australia’s stolen generation pause for a moment's silence during a National Sorry Day ceremony in Sydney in this May 26, 2006 file photo. National Sorry Day is a day of commemoration for thousands of aboriginal children who were forcibly removed from their families from 1910 to 1970 under a past Australian welfare policy aimed at assimilating Aborigines into white society.TIM WIMBORNE/Reuters

Several countries trying to move beyond the legacy of human-rights abuses involving native peoples have undertaken truth-seeking and reconciliation efforts. Here are some examples of what has been attempted:


Called the "Stolen Generations," indigenous children and their families were routinely separated from the beginning of colonization in the 1700s. Governments and churches forced assimilation and conversion to Christianity by placing children in training institutes to become manual or domestic labourers, according to a 2009 report for the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. From 1900 to 1969, when the practice ended, the report says, between 10 and 33 per cent of children were removed from their homes to live in deplorable conditions, often subjected to malnutrition and sexual abuse.

A 1997 inquiry made 54 recommendations, including offering an apology and reparations to those affected. A year later, the government organized the first annual National Sorry Day, and in 2001, Pope John Paul II issued a formal apology for the role played by Catholic institutions.

Compensation from the government, however, remains a challenge, with no established reparations scheme and only one successful case in civil court.

New Zealand

Education was used to "civilize" and convert Maori children as early as 1840, when New Zealand officially became a British colony. Boarding schools initially taught in the Maori language but soon qualified for subsidies only if lessons were in English. By 1960, only 26 per cent of children could still speak their native language.

A Royal Commission report concluded in 1988 that assimilation policies oppressed Maori culture, and called for education that was culturally relevant and bilingual. Today, there are schools that once again teach in Maori, following a curriculum meant to incorporate and validate Maori culture. New Zealand has also paid hundreds of millions of dollars in reparations, mostly in relation to land claims, but several settlements also include apologies, and they acknowledge that the government contravened the original treaty that established the colony.

Northern Europe

Missionaries established Christian schools during the 17th century, encouraging the indigenous Sami people to give up their languages. Over time, schools for the Sami came under government control in Norway, Finland, Sweden and Russia, all of which prohibited them from speaking their languages. It was a traumatic experience for many, although the schools often served non-indigenous students as well.

In 1989, Norway established an elected Sami parliament to advise the government on issues important to the communities, soon followed by Finland and Sweden. After years of advocacy, the Sami have been given a legal right to use their languages, which continue to decline nonetheless.

Norway, Sweden and Finland support initiatives to protect Sami culture, and in 1997, the Norwegian king publicly apologized for his country's assimilation policies; two years later, the prime minister did the same.

In Russia, however, indigenous leaders are still fighting for a Sami parliament, and their languages have no official status.


Danish settlers established more community-based schools than boarding schools for the Inuit population, although both played a role in the attempt to erase Greenland's indigenous culture. Schools were modelled after the Danish education system and were run by the church and later the state.

The situation improved in 1979 when home rule gave Greenlanders, the vast majority of whom are Inuit, a degree of self-government. Soon after, schools shifted from teachng in Danish to Greenlandic, or Kalaallisut (a dialect of Inuktitut similar to what's spoken in nearby Nunavut), and the curriculum was adapted to include a greater focus on Inuit culture.

In 1999, the Danish prime minister apologized, in Greenlandic, for the forced removal in the 1950s of local residents to make way for the U.S. air base at Thule. A decade later, Greenlandic became the official language as part of a new self-rule system that also granted Greenland control of its justice and policing systems, and recognized its citizens as a distinct people under international law.

Although still battling such issues as suicide and poor access to health services, Greenlanders have been relatively successful in reviving and maintaining their language and culture.

South Africa

South Africa established its Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1995 to investigate human-rights abuse during apartheid. Public hearings were held as the country was making the transition to democracy, and featured testimony from people subjected to state-sanctioned torture – and some who had had family members killed.

Although it focused on victims, the commission heard from all parties, including perpetrators, and was authorized to grant amnesty under certain conditions in exchange for their co-operation.

Over all, the commission is considered a success, but research conducted afterward by the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation was less than conclusive, and Bishop Desmond Tutu, a commission member, has written that the commission focused on "trigger-pullers" and let those who benefited from apartheid escape responsibility.