10 years on, Uncle Murray remembers how two words changed his life

After the trauma of being taken from family for no reason other than skin colour, the powerful words “I’m sorry” was a turning point in Murray Harrison’s life. 

“At the time everything just fell away,” Mr Harrison said.

“All the hurt, all the things that I’d been carrying with me just fell away.”

The Ballarat Aboriginal elder travelled to Canberra in 2008 to hear Prime Minister Kevin Rudd deliver the landmark apology to the Stolen Generations in person.

He can still clearly recall the raw emotion that overcame him as he tried to move past the thousands of onlookers on the lawn outside Parliament House. 

Uncle Murray in 2015.

Uncle Murray in 2015.

“Previous governments and previous prime ministers had thought about it and even spoken about it, but none of them had the courage to do as Mr Rudd did,” Mr Harrison said.

At just 10 years old, Mr Harrison was taken with two of his sisters by the welfare department to become wards of the state.

By the time his family in Gippsland discovered their disappearance, the children were already in Warragul en route to Melbourne.

“They had no way to follow us because in those days if you had a motor vehicle you were very, very lucky,” Mr Harrison said.

All the hurt, all the things that I’d been carrying with me just fell away.

Murray Harrison

He can recall the dark cell at Turana Youth Detention Centre, where he had just a mattress and pillow.

There, the staff shaved his head, scrubbed him hard “so the black would come off” and dressed him in rags.

“Being in Turana and the things that happened there, things really haven’t changed, people are still being brutally treated,” Mr Harrison said.

“I have found out since that I have a criminal record of being a juvenile delinquent. I have done nothing except be who I am.”

After a long struggle with alcoholism, Mr Harrison said the reasons he was still alive were his wife Norma and God. 

POWERFUL MOMENT: Murray Harrison, known as Uncle Murray to many, stands beside his beloved wife Norma. Picture: Luka Kauzlaric

POWERFUL MOMENT: Murray Harrison, known as Uncle Murray to many, stands beside his beloved wife Norma. Picture: Luka Kauzlaric

They also gave him the strength to keep telling his story, even if it meant reliving the memories.

In the decade since the federal apology, Mr Harrison was disappointed more had not been done in closing the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

Three of the seven Closing the Gap targets have been achieved this year including childhood mortality and early childhood education.

But targets for life expectancy, employment, reading and numeracy, and school attendance have not been met.

Mr Harrison said there was still a “get over it” attitude and hoped marking the 10th anniversary of the apology would reignite a sense of urgency in addressing issues and delivering redress.

I have found out since that I have a criminal record of being a juvenile delinquent. I have done nothing except be who I am.

Murray Harrison

“If you’ve lost somebody recently, do you get over it? No, because when they go, they take a piece of you that can’t be replaced,” he said.

“This business of get over it, it doesn’t matter if it’s five minutes or five years or fifty years… it’s still there and you miss those things you had.”

On Tuesday, Mr Harrison will speak with Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews and tell him it is time the state got its act together. 

Ditchy's take.

Ditchy's take.

“There are a lot of things needed that the Stolen Generations would have liked and it hasn’t happened – whether it’s health or housing,” Mr Harrison said.

“Hopefully this 10-year anniversary will give the people in charge, state or federal, the chance to relook at what probably should have been done five years after the apology.

“These people need to be redressed and the only way to do that is less talk and more action… we need to have something to show.” 

Civic reception to mark 10th ​anniversary

City of Ballarat is holding a civic reception to mark the 10th anniversary of the national apology to the Stolen Generations on Tuesday.

About 300 people will gather at the Ballarat Regional Soccer Facility, with Murray Harrison the keynote speaker and performances from singers Isaiah Firebrace and DeborahN.

Ten years on from the apology, Mayor Samantha McIntosh said the Ballarat community had taken an intercultural approach and was embracing differences.

Uncle Murray in 2013.

Uncle Murray in 2013.

“I think our Aboriginal community has really done that exceptionally well - embracing who they are, embracing where they come from and being proud of that and our community respecting that,” she said.

“And I think that is a big part of what we mean we’re an intercultural city.”

But she believed there was still much more that needed to be done, with Ballarat’s Reconciliation Action Plan 2014-2017 playing an important role.

“I know that we are delivering it, I know that we are living it and I know that it is still not complete, which is why we’re going back with a new iteration,” Cr McIntosh said.

“Like any of these plans, they are always a moving document and we are pretty lucky we have great people in our community that are sharing their knowledge with us to help us achieve the best we possibly can.” 

She said it was key the community worked together and continued to remember the past, even if not pleasant. 

We can’t change what happened but we can certainly, together, work forward for a much stronger, happier community.

Mayor Samantha McIntosh

“We can’t change what happened but we can certainly, together, work forward for a much stronger, happier community - and I think that we are doing that,” Cr McIntosh said.

Meanwhile, Rachel Muir from the Koorie Engagement Action Group, who has helped with the organisation of the event, said Ballarat had “done a lot” to create a safe and secure environment.

This included flying the Aboriginal flag, including plaques on buildings, and the Welcome to Country, smoking ceremonies or traditional dance before events.

“It’s just those little things that make a big difference...  it makes us feel safe and happy to be here,” Ms Muir said.

“And to be part of this event, I feel proud.”