Long road to reconciliation

Sorry Day, May 26, opens up wounds for those taken away from their families by the state.

Taken from his mother as a baby, Lee Willis-Ardler, learnt to direct his anger into positive change:

Lee Willis-Ardler is a straight talker and prone to using colourful, fiery language. But when he is asked about ‘being stolen’ from his mother as a newborn, he is lost for words.

“I go through periods thinking about it,” he eventually said after a long pause. “There’s an anger about it and it doesn’t go away.”

36 year-old Willis-Ardler was born on the south coast of New South Wales at a small community called Wreck Bay, a name that conjures an actual crash and disruption of cultures.

He was placed into a Sydney children’s home from where was adopted out at four months of age.

Today, that fact hits home as he cuddles his third child, 9-month-old Dusty.

“Dusty looks just like me at that age. It makes me think what a bastard way to spend the first months of life in a children’s home.”

Willis-Ardler grew up in central NSW and the Hunter Valley with his adopting parents, “a decent and loving couple”, but couldn’t shake what he says is still a pervasive idea in Australia, that “if you’re not white, you’re not right”.

If adolescence is an awkward period beset with rebellion and questions about identity, Willis-Ardler’s teenage years were extremely restless.

“I grew up confused, not knowing who I was. I had another name and family.

“I was into everything I shouldn’t have been into. It was another bloody thing I had to deal with and I dealt with it the best way I knew.”

Age 16, he was reunited with his mother, Coral, through a friend of a friend. “We arranged a time and place to meet. It’s hard to explain. It was sad.”

He made a decision not ask too many questions nor to need to know everything about the circumstances of his removal. “There are some things I don’t want to explore, otherwise it would do my head in.”

But he did have one burning question for his mother: “Why did you give me away?”

“She told me straight, ‘I didn’t’.”

Sorry Day is in its 12th year in the wake of the 1998 tabling of the Bringing Them Home report which was the result of an inquiry into the removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families by Australian Federal and State government agencies. Sorry Day is part of Reconciliation Week, a week of events meant to acknowledge the past and assist the emotional repair of those impacted.

“What really hurts is that the poor lady who gave birth to [me], her one and only kid, spent the next however many years wondering how he was. That to me is worse. That’s more traumatic,” Willis-Ardler said.

He is circumspect about Sorry Day and its significance:

“It has its place. It is healing for a lot of people, those that were taken away and the descendents of stolen people. But it also lifts the scab on a wound. Sometimes you don’t want to be reminded.

“You hear about the blokes who don’t want to march on Anzac Day. Remembering makes me feel sick. For me, I want to be sure this never ever happens again.”

Willis-Ardler welcomed the unreserved apology to Stolen Generations made by the Federal Parliament two years ago. The Rudd Government also used the occasion to reject formal compensation for victims.

It’s something Willis-Ardler is prepared to accept. “I’m not into it. For others, it may acknowledge their loss. But for me, nothing can be done now.”

What he is keen to see happen is the development of a Moari-style treaty that confirms Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as Australia's original inhabitants.

“There was an illegal occupation. Blacks never ceded sovereignty. While we can’t turn back time, that point needs to be acknowledged.”

He resists the idea of Australia becoming a republic without a treaty in place because, he fears, it would “draw a line in the sand”. “People would think we have moved on but we haven’t. Australia is yet to take ownership of its black history.”

Willis-Ardler lives in Dubbo with his wife and children, heading one of Indigenous Community Volunteer’s regional teams, after two decades of on-again-off-again study, youth work supporting young adults at risk and juveniles in detention, documentary and film making.

He wrote and produced the 2007 documentary Sugar, Flour, Tea which looks at the premature death of an Indigenous mate, John DeSatge. Indigenous people have a much lower life expectancy than non-Indigenous Australians.

He talks about ICV, an organisation that facilitates volunteers to work with Indigenous people on community development projects, as giving him and ‘his mob’ a future:

“It’s the best non-Aboriginal organisation I have ever worked for. It has a great philosophy, working with people, not for them and to them.”

Prior to this job, he dismissed what he calls “touchy, feely reconciliation”.

“I didn’t have time for it. Particularly given that there is nothing romantic about grassroots work in Aboriginal communities. But I can now see the benefits of practical reconciliation.”

He has come a long way in many respects. He admits he was a ratbag who “terrorised” people in his earlier years but that “luck” and the tenacity of people who saw his potential, helped pull him out of trouble and “straight” into suburbia with a mortgage.

“Anger ate me up for a long time. I realised I needed to turn that anger and frustration into something positive and propel myself forward.”

Lee Willis-Ardler feels he has a lot today that he can give back. So much so that he and his wife, Naomi, are planning to foster parent children who need care.

First published in The Canberra Times and The Newcastle Herald, May 26, 2010.

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