How Did the Assimilation Policy Affect Indigenous Peoples?

Understanding the history of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is an important aspect of Reconciliation. Looking at events such as the introduction and escalation of the assimilation policy is a stark insight into the inequalities and disadvantages suffered by Indigenous people for generations.

National Reconciliation Week provides an environment where all Australians can attend events, celebrations, commemorations, and reflections to better understand what Reconciliation in Australia means and why it is so important.

The focus of the assimilation policy, created by the Commonwealth Government in 1937, was to force First Nations people to be ‘absorbed’ into the rest of the population, effectively attempting to erase Aboriginal culture, family ties, and communities to address what was, at the time, referred to as the ‘Aboriginal problem’.

Today, we’ll discuss some of the ramifications, the cruelties inflicted on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and why the effects of assimilation remain relevant today.

What Was the Australian Assimilation Policy?

As we’ve summarised, the assimilation policy was a governmental approach that tried to erase the identity and presence of Indigenous people. These prohibitive and punitive laws were wide-ranging and seemed unimaginably hostile, having been accepted and seen as the norm just eighty-six years ago:

  • The children of First Nations families were forcibly removed, and many were placed in government-approved foster homes or white institutions.
  • Aboriginal and First Nations people could not earn the same wages as their white counterparts and were stripped of any entitlement to social security.
  • Towns and cities imposed bans on the presence of all Indigenous people after specific times, which did not apply to other people or groups, including restrictions on the purchase or use of alcohol.
  • Aboriginal children were banned from mainstream educational establishments and made to attend separate schools–if they had access to schooling at all.

Having so briefly summarised the harsh reality of assimilation policy – what is National Reconciliation Week, and what is its place? 

The point of the nationwide week is for all Australians to celebrate the unique culture and contribution of Indigenous people, to recognise and listen to stories of their past, and to work towards Reconciliation, moving forward from the harms caused with peace, appreciation, and acknowledgement.

How Did Assimilation Policy Change the Lives of Aboriginal People?

Although assimilation was presented as a way to introduce parity between all ethnicities and cultures in Australia, the reality was violently cruel.

The government at the time stated that it wanted all Australians to enjoy equal rights and privileges. However, it believed that it needed to remove all customs, influences, and belief systems from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. This implied that there was nothing of any substance, significance, or value within First Nations culture, and it should be deleted or removed by force.

One of the practices that remains shocking in modern society is that local municipalities began removing children from their homes, following laws enshrined in child welfare legislation under the guise of being in the interests of the child.

States were actively encouraged to remove as many Indigenous children as possible, receiving governmental finances in the form of endowments. This practice continued until 1967, tearing families apart and sending children as young as newborn infants to unknown destinations while removing all parental rights.

Many children were exposed to neglect, abuse, forced adoption, or medical disorders due to their treatment and the authorities that were left responsible for their care.

How Did the Assimilation Policy Come to an End?

After thirty years and countless demonstrations, petitions, and outcries about this inhumane treatment of Aboriginal and First Nations Islander people, the assimilation policy ended after the 1967 referendum. As one of several activists, supporters, allies, and spokespeople, Paul Hasluck–the Minister for Territories at the time–spoke at the Native Welfare Conference in 1951, stating that the treatment of Indigenous people by the Australian government contradicted the most basic of international human rights.

While the assimilation policy did not end immediately, the growing voices of anger and despair came to a culmination when the constitutional referendum finally recognised the abuse of power and humanitarian responsibility inflicted on so many.

Assimilation policy ceased to exist, and after governmental representatives continued to cite integration as a policy priority, the establishment of the Aboriginal Affairs federal office and the introduction of grants to support welfare programmes was the first step in the right direction.

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