The complex and seemingly irreconcilable issues facing the future of indigenous Australians can fill some with despair, but one Ballarat elder is convinced the lessons of the past hold the promise for the future and help close the gap. Melissa Cunningham finds out how.
FOR decades Murray Harrison could hear the sound of the keys turning in his cell at Turana Youth Detention Centre.
The sound would echo in his ears when he was awake in the darkness late at night.
When he finally did sleep, he would wake up screaming.
Dreams of being taken from his family again, haunted the Ballarat Aboriginal elder for more than 60 years.
He said the turning point in his life came after public parliamentary apology to the Stolen Generations in 2008.
"In the eyes, faces and hearts of indigenous people you could see that this it what we needed to heal," Mr Harrison said.
"It was recognition. Once we were recognised as people, we could get our lives in order and start the healing process."
February 13, marked eight years since the apology to the Stolen Generations and Mr Harrison said while he felt Australia had come so far, there was still such a long way to go.
His words come in the wake of the unveiling of the seventh Closing the Gap report.
The report found that while there was improvements in some sectors, including halving the gap in mortality rates for indigenous children under five, other areas continued to lag behind.
There has been scarcely any improvement in improving the life expectancy gap between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians which currently sits at 11.5 years for males and 9.7 years for females.
On releasing the report earlier this year, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott contended that while he remained hopeful the gap in indigenous disadvantage would be bridged within the next two decades, the failures were "profoundly disappointing."
He said without the expectation that children would attend school everyday the objectives of the Closing the Gap may be doomed for failure.
"It's hard to be literate and numerate without attending school," Mr Abbott said.
"It's hard to find work without basic education and it hard to live well without a job."
He went onto to say that although there had been some improvement in education and health outcomes for indigenous Australians, in many areas the progress has been far too slow and that most targets set out in 2008 were not on track to be met.
There has been no significant overall improvement in indigenous reading and numeracy since 2008.
The federal government has also admitted that it not on track to halve the gap in employment outcomes between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians by 2018 with a decline in employment outcomes since the 2008 baseline.
Mr Harrison said there was no easy answer to closing the gap of highly complex issue which continued to haunt the country.
A holistic approach was needed.
But he said the first step was already underway.
"There needs to be a solid foundation for change and there is," Mr Harrison.
"There is still a lot lacking in this report, but there are a lot of good things. Like any report of this size, we need to keep fighting to improve it year by year."
Mr Harrison said work needed to be done to educate a younger generation of indigenous people who were caught between two worlds, struggling to overcome the complexities
evolved from trans-generational trauma.
Mr Harrison said there were still many young indigenous people spiralling into a life of crime, drug and alcohol abuse.
He said he wanted a forum to be held in Ballarat for young indigenous people to tackle the bigger social issues lead by health experts, community leaders, indigenous elders and educators.
"There needs to be a space where any indigenous young person can ask questions troubling them," Mr Harrison said.
"And those questions are answered by an expert or another indigenous leader who can speak to their in their own language."
Mr Harrison was only 10-years-old when he was taken.
He was shoved into a cell with an old mattress on the floor.
"The cell wasn't much bigger than that doorway," Mr Harrison said pointing to the narrow hallway of his home.
"The man who threw me in there looked at me and said 'We'll deal with you in the morning you black bastard. Get on the floor where you belong you black dog.' I can still hear his voice. He slammed the cell door shut and locked it."
In the morning the staff at the centre shaved his head and dressed him old rags.
"They told us not to speak unless we were spoken to and not to look at anyone the wrong way," Mr Harrison said. "They would beat across the back of the head or the legs sometimes because we just looked at them. It was no way to live walking on egg shells."
He would stay until he was moved to Ballarat Orphanage later that year.
After his mother died in 1942 Mr Harrison and his siblings were moved between members of their family all over Victoria.
"Dad was trying to get his life together after his years of army service," Mr Harrison said.
"It was impossible for him to try and look after seven kids on his own."
He was sent to Bruthen to live with his aunt, sister and cousins.
It was there, in the small township situated alongside the Tambo river between Bairnsdale and Ensay, that Mr Harrison was bundled into the back of a strange car.
He was in a field on the outskirts of the town with other indigenous people, picking peas and beans, when he was taken with his two sisters in 1948.
"One day the welfare people just came and yelled at me and two sisters to get in the car," Mr Harrison said.
"We protested but they told us to shut our mouths and get in the car. They didn't tell anybody else. By the time our family knew we were already in Warragul on our way to Melbourne. I never saw my aunt again."
Mr Harrison said while he is here to tell the story, many others couldn't live through the pain.
"For some the hurt was just too deep," Mr Harrison said.
His older sister Daphne died due to alcohol abuse not long after she left the orphanage.
His youngster Eileen later died in East Gippsland, following years of ill health and despair.
His cousin John left the notorious Salvation Army Boys' Home at The Basin after enduring years of abuse but he was never the same.
"When he left there for the last time I saw him and they had beaten him around the buttocks with barbed wire," Mr Harrison said.
"The physical scars went away eventually but the mental scars never left him. He tried to drink it away, but it never left him."
Unable to bear it anymore, John committed suicide during the 1980s.
"There was this unbearable sadness for so many years," Mr Harrison said. "A detachment from everything, from society. A lot of pain still exists, but some of it was eased by the apology. Before the apology we couldn't talk about the past without crying. The tears couldn't be washed away, except by something real. That was what the apology was to the indigenous people."
By the time he was 18, he was a promising footballer for Ballarat East and a chronic alcoholic.
"Alcohol and indigenous people do not mix well," Mr Harrison said.
"It was never part of our culture or our metabolism. It just takes over the person. It destroys them."
His saving grace was his wife Norma.
"She saved my life," Mr Harrison said. "I truly believe God had his hand on me when he sent me to the Ballarat orphanage because Norma was waiting for me on the outside."
But he said the older generation of Aboriginal people also had much to learn from the younger generations of indigenous people.
"Many of them are going to university, they understand things better than we do," Mr Harrison said.
"They are able to lead the way for the older generations, teaching them how to eat better and do the right thing, medically, physically and emotionally."
Mr Harrison said while there he did not know if he would see the divide between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians would be closed in his lifetime,
his dream was to see a tolerant and an accepting world that acknowledged the past and work towards creating a better future.
"It doesn't matter what colour you are, black, blue, yellow, purple," Mr Harrison said. "We are all equal, we are all the same underneath. We are all Australian."