CANBERRA, Australia – Aborigines have long lived on the fringe of Australian society, but they will take center stage when Parliament holds a historic ceremony to acknowledge the nation's capital is built on their land.
On Thursday, Aboriginal leaders welcomed the latest step in a new era of indigenous relations in Australia.
The first act of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's new government will be to ask Parliament on Feb. 13 to pass a motion apologizing for past policies of taking mostly mixed-race children from Aboriginal mothers to try to make them grow up like white Australians.
And on Feb. 12, an Aboriginal elder, Matilda House, will welcome lawmakers to Parliament House and surrounding land inhabited by her Ngunnawal tribe before British settlers arrived in the 19th century.
"I think it's just a marvelous thing," House said of the inclusion of traditional owners for the first time in Parliament's 107-year history.
The ceremony underscores the new government's ambition to end mainstream Australia's neglect of Aborigines, who are the nation's poorest minority group and who die an average of 17 years younger than other Australians.
"This welcome will carry national significance in symbolizing a future of respect and partnership with indigenous people," Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin said in a statement.
A national inquiry into the so-called "stolen generations" found in 1997 that many children taken from their families suffered long-term psychological effects from the loss of family and culture, and recommended that Parliament apologize.
Former Prime Minister John Howard had long refused to apologize, arguing his government should not be held responsible for the policies of former officials.
The new government plans to fly 70 people from the "stolen generations" — some of whom live in dilapidated Outback camps or on the outskirts of cities — to witness the opening ceremony in Canberra, said Barbara Livesey, chief executive of Reconciliation Australia. The agency is tasked with bringing black and white Australians together.
The Ngunnawal have no official title to the land, but their participation in the ceremony supports the new government attitude that Aborigines deserve special respect as Australia's original inhabitants and land holders.
Megan Davis, an Aboriginal lawyer and director of the University of New South Wales' Indigenous Legal Center, described the indigenous focus of the first week of Parliament as "a good start."
But she said Rudd was making a mistake by not tying the apology to compensation, as Canada did with its indigenous peoples. Rudd has ruled out indigenous leaders' demands for compensation.
Aborigines account for about 450,000 of the Australian population of 21 million. They are the poorest ethnic group in Australia and are most likely to be jailed, unemployed and illiterate.
From 1910 until the 1970s, around 100,000 mostly mixed-blood Aboriginal children were taken from their parents under state and federal laws based on a premise that Aborigines were a doomed race and saving the children was a humane alternative.