Today, May 26, is National Sorry Day in Australia, an annual event that has been held since 1998 to commemorate the mistreatment of the country’s indigenous people.

This day carries great significance for the indigenous communities. A report dealing with the separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families and communities had been tabled in the Australian Parliament on May 26, 1997. This marked a pivotal moment in acknowledging their hardships and suffering.

In 1999, the Australian parliament recognised the historical maltreatment of indigenous Australians over a significant period, and said that it represented “the most blemished chapter” in Australian history. It expressed its deep and sincere regret that indigenous Australians had suffered injustices under the practices of past generations, and that many indigenous people continued to feel the hurt and trauma as a consequence of those practices.

However, the 1999 parliamentary motion of reconciliation did not include the word “sorry”. Some argued that saying “sorry” would entail an acknowledgment of intergenerational guilt for the wrongs of the past being judged according to the standards of today. The Minister for Aboriginal Affairs had said: “The government does not support an official national apology. Such an apology could imply that present generations are in some way responsible and accountable for the actions of earlier generations.”

The Opposition had then moved an amendment stating that the parliament should unreservedly apologise to indigenous Australians for the injustice they had suffered, and for the hurt and trauma that many continued to suffer as a consequence of that injustice. The amendment was rejected.

In 2008, almost a decade later, the Australian parliament passed a resolution moved by the Prime Minister and the leader of the Opposition which included a clear apology. In the words of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd: “As a nation, we must now reflect on those who did not receive proper care. We look back with shame… For these failures to offer proper care to the powerless, the voiceless and the most vulnerable, we say sorry… We recognise the pain you have suffered. Pain is so very personal. Pain is so profoundly disabling. So let us together as a nation allow this apology to begin to heal this pain.”

We, in Malta, can learn from today’s celebration of National Sorry Day in Australia. It is our duty to say sorry to people who have suffered. The shocking and despicable murder of Ivorian national Lassana Cisse on April 6 – a racially motivated killing – should be a wake-up call and move us to take action. We cannot look the other way!

We should say sorry to all those in our country who have been victims of hate; to those who have suffered pain and humiliation; to those who have been maltreated because of the colour of their skin or for any other reason; to those who have been the target of derogatory comments under the pretext of freedom of expression; to those whose wounds are still open and need healing today. Socie­ty begs for your forgiveness!

We should do so with great sorrow for their hurt, but also with a firm commitment that we will stand up to safeguard the life and dignity of every human being, defending in a special way the most vulnerable. We need to actively counteract through our actions the ‘throwaway culture’ that has human lives among its victims, and we must work for an inclusive and just society where all are respected and protected.

Can we have a National Sorry Day in Malta too? It might be an appropriate and timely step if our apology is sincere and is backed by concrete action.

Mgr Joseph Galea-Curmi is Auxiliary Bishop of Malta.

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