Sorry Day

Published on Friday 24 May 2024

On 26 May each year Australia acknowledges Sorry Day. The first Sorry Day was held in 1998 to mark the one-year anniversary of the tabling of the Bringing them Home report in the Australian Parliament.

In 1995, the then attorney-general tasked the Australian Human Rights Commission with opening the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their Families. The inquiry was a response to growing concerns from First Nations communities about the impact of and devastating harm caused by past governments’ policies and practices of assimilation and the systematic removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families.

The outcome of the inquiry was the Bringing them Home report, which was published in 1997. The report estimated that 50,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children were forcibly taken from their families between 1910 and 1970. Other estimates suggest one in three or one in ten children. The true number will never be known.

To understand how consecutive governments could forcibly remove Aboriginal children from their families and create policies based on the ideas that these children could be ‘socialised as Whites’ and ‘Aboriginal blood’1 could be bred out, it must first be acknowledged that this practice has a history that goes back to the earliest days of the NSW colony.

The practice of removing Aboriginal children began in the early 1800s. On 10 December 1814, Governor Lachlan Macquarie ordered the establishment of the Native Institution at Parramatta, which was run by the Christian missionary William Shelley. It served as a children’s institute and asylum with the objective of providing training and a Western education to Aboriginal children in NSW. The institution was a product of the colony’s attempts towards ‘civilising the Aborigines of New South Wales’ and 'render[ing] their habitats more domesticated and industrious’.2

In 1883, following a period of conflict and resistance now referred to as the Frontier Wars, the Legislative Assembly of NSW established the Aborigines Protection Board (APB). The APB was subject to the control of the Colonial Secretary. After the colonists’ arrival in 1788, the systematic dispossession of land directly impacted First Nations people’s access to food systems and resources. This established and maintained a power imbalance that resulted in control and confining of Aboriginal life to allocated parcels of land called missions or reserves. The APB’s core function was to manage the reserves and control the movements of Aboriginal people in NSW. The APB was dissolved in 1940 and was replaced by the Aborigines Welfare Board (AWB), which was abolished in 1969.

The APB was sanctioned with full legislative control over Aboriginal people in NSW with the establishment of the Aborigines Protection Act 1909. This was the first piece of legislation in NSW to authorise the removal of Aboriginal children to training institutions. The Act gave the APB the authority to apprentice out the child of an ‘Aborigine’ under the Apprentices Act 1901 and gave the state custody of children considered to be ‘neglected’ under the Neglected Children and Juvenile Offenders Act 1905. Later amendments to the Aborigines Protection Act allowed these children to be boarded out or adopted by non-Indigenous families as a practice of assimilation.

These children who were forcibly taken from their families are now referred to as the Stolen Generations. The Bringing them Home report tells some of their stories, reports the findings of the national inquiry, and provides recommendations to inform the provision of services to address the trauma experienced by survivors of the Stolen Generations.

A key recommendation of the report is to provide access to personal and family records stored in government archives:

Recommendation 23: That the Commonwealth and each State and Territory Government establish and fund a Records Taskforce constituted by representatives from government and church and other non-government record agencies and Indigenous user services to,

  1. develop common access guidelines to Indigenous personal, family and community records as appropriate to the jurisdiction and in accordance with established privacy principles,
  2. advise the government whether any church or other non-government record-holding agency should be assisted to preserve and index its records and administer access,
  3. advise government on memoranda of understanding for dealing with inter-State enquiries and for the inter-State transfer of files and other information,
  4. advise government and churches generally on policy relating to access to and uses of Indigenous personal, family and community information, and
  5. advise government on the need to introduce or amend legislation to put these policies and practices into place.

In 2018, the Unfinished Business Progress report was tabled in the NSW Parliament. This report outlines the progress the NSW Government has made in its commitments to Stolen Generations survivors. The NSW Government responded to Recommendation 23 of the Bringing them Home report by establishing a Family Records Service to streamline access to personal and family information held within government archives. NSW was also the first state to establish a financial reparations scheme.

The chilling details of what happened to Aboriginal children in NSW when they were stolen from their families and placed in state-run training institutions are contained in the APB and AWB archives. The cruelty, violence, abuse, humiliation and exploitation they suffered is documented in the records.

We were prisoners from when we were born … The girls who went to Cootamundra and the boys who went to Kinchela – we were all prisoners. Even today they have our file number so we’re still prisoners you know. And we’ll always be prisoners while our files are in archives.
Confidential evidence 436, New South Wales.

Bringing them Home report (1997)

These deeply personal and undignifying records about their childhoods provide key information for survivors to find their way home. For some this is the only token they have from their childhood. Sadly, many relevant files have been lost or destroyed and as outlined in the report, Stolen Generations survivors continue to seek access to surviving archives and records relating to their removal.

These stolen children are now elders who peeled away the layers of trauma, exposed their wounds and shared their stories so we could learn from the past. They bravely stand as living examples of the detrimental impact of assimilation and cultural erasure practices.

One thing to be learnt from Stolen Generations survivors and their healing journeys is that understanding the past leads to a better future.

On Sorry Day we grieve the loss of the children who never came home and acknowledge the strength of our Stolen Generations survivors as drivers of truth-telling.

You can watch the Bringing them Home documentary here.


1. Australian Human Rights Commission, ‘Bringing them home 8. History – New South Wales and Australian Capital Territory’, accessed 17 May 2024.

2. Government and General Orders, 9 Nov 1814 to 26 Dec 1818 Inclusive, p11. State Archives Collection, Museums of History NSW: NRS-1046-1-[SZ759].

MHNSW Community Access to the Archives project

MHNSW and the Aboriginal Languages Trust are working together to uncover First Nations language and cultural material held in government archives. The First Nations Community Access to the Archives project team is dedicated to improving access to and protecting and preserving language and cultural material held by MHNSW. The ultimate objective of the project is to return Indigenous knowledges to communities to aid in the revitalisation of Aboriginal languages and cultures in NSW.

Read more about the project

Aboriginal Languages and Nations in NSW & ACT © Reconciliation NSW

First Nations Community Access to Archives

This project aims to improve access for First Nations people to important archival material about culture, kinship, stories, and languages within the State Archives Collection

Aboriginal resources at MHNSW

MHNSW holds a significant number of government records that document government’s interactions with Aboriginal people.

Read more here.

Please note that these records contain material that may be offensive or distressing to First Nations people.

First Nations Hub

The First Nations Hub is a dedicated space that brings First Nations content together so it’s easy to find and explores deeper stories, conversations, truth-telling and ideas. It’s a place for and by First Nations people and communities; a living space that will change and grow. Find out more about the First Nations Hub here.

Alinta Trindall

Alinta Trindall

Access Advisor, First Nations Community Access to Archives Collections

Alinta Trindall is a proud Thungutti and Gamilaroi woman and is the Access Advisor for the First Nations Community Access to Archives team. Alinta is an advocate for truth-telling and its interconnectedness with healing. In her previous work as a researcher, she was committed to decolonising research and found a passion for the translation of Indigenous knowledge through a two-way learning lens. She’s worked on several community-led research projects and has used Indigenous research methodologies to conduct research that would be used to advocate for community priorities. Alinta has previously worked with the archives of the Aborigines Protection Board and the Aborigines Welfare Board through the Family Records Service with Aboriginal Affairs NSW and developed a deep love and appreciation for historical records. Alinta hopes that providing community with access to archival material and historical records will revitalise culture, reclaim our languages, provide educational tools for truth-telling, and ultimately contribute to healing.