The fight for First Nations Reparations is revolutionary

Invasion Day 2018. Photo by Alison Thorne.
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In May this year the coronation of Charles III took place in Westminster Abbey. The event drew on symbolism from a feudal era, and the wealth of the institution was on display for the world to see. The British monarchy has a very ugly legacy, dating back to the 16th century. At the helm of colonial expansion across the globe, it built an empire upon which, famously, the sun never set.

Calls for Britain to take responsibility for the devastating impact of its plunder are growing louder. Seizing the opportunity of the coronation, Indigenous leaders from a host of former British colonies issued a letter demanding that the new King “acknowledge the horrific impacts on and legacy of genocide and colonisation of the Indigenous and enslaved peoples of Antigua and Barbuda, Aotearoa (New Zealand), Australia, The Bahamas, Belize, Canada, Grenada, Jamaica, Papua New Guinea, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines.”
The letter also stipulated that remains and cultural artefacts be returned, called for the payment of financial reparations and requested that the King “help our communities recover from centuries of racism, oppression, colonialism and slavery.”

Right across the British empire, the lives of the original inhabitants were devastated by invasion and land theft. Indigenous peoples were exposed to disease, the theft of their children, loss of language and forced assimilation. In Australia, there were widespread massacres, many of them conducted by police. The last of these atrocities occurred less than one hundred years ago, in 1927.

There is certainly a strong case for reparations, a demand that is gaining popularity in Australia amongst radical First Nations activists and their supporters. This call features in demands raised at Invasion Day rallies, held each January around the country. A large Blak and Palestinian Solidarity rally last month, hosted by Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance and Free Palestine Melbourne, advocated reparations for both First Nations and Palestinians.

What are reparations? The term refers to the act of making amends for an abuse or injury through compensation. International bodies have called for standards of accountability for crimes against humanity. In 2005 the United Nations passed a resolution documenting these standards, titled the “Basic Principles and Guidelines on the Right to a Remedy and Reparation for Victims of Gross Violations of International Human Rights Law and Serious Violations of International Humanitarian Law.”

There are many examples of reparations. While frequently inadequate, they set important precedents. Germany has paid $70 billion through a range of collective and individual programs as compensation for the Nazi murder of Jews. Chile has paid reparations to some of those abused at the hands of the Pinochet dictatorship. South Africa has restored land stolen from Black people during apartheid.

Canada has paid reparations to some First Nations people in recognition of its crimes. Earlier this year, it reached agreement to pay more than 23 billion dollars to compensate 300,000 First Nations people for the decades of harm caused by discrimination in the welfare system while they were children.

In the U.S., Elouise Cobell from the Blackfeet Nation led a class action lawsuit against the government. This resulted in 3.4 billion dollars being returned to First Nations for communal tribal ownership and the establishment of a scholarship fund to support Native American students. Also in the U.S. in 1988, the living Japanese American survivors of internment during WWII won compensation, although the amount of just $20,000 to each was meagre.

Stolen lives. In 1995, the Australian Human Rights Commission undertook a national inquiry into the separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families. These children are known collectively as the Stolen Generations. Its findings were released in 1997 as the Bringing them Home Report. Amongst the 54 recommendations was the call to apologise, make reparations for past wrongs and cease the practice of removing children. Prime Minister John Howard categorically rejected these recommendations, declaring that he would not acquiesce to a “black armband view of history.”

It took more than a decade before Kevin Rudd, who replaced Howard, delivered an apology to the Stolen Generations. Like his predecessor, Rudd rejected compensation. “Money,” he argued, “won’t overcome the problems.”

Debra Hocking, a Stolen Generations woman from the Mouheneenner nation in Tasmania, disagreed. Speaking to the Freedom Socialist Bulletin at the time, she said that what’s needed is “extra help with counselling services. People also need assistance to be reunited. We need parenting centres set up. These can support young mums who do struggle, so they don’t come under fire from the welfare department and have their children taken away. We also need reparations and compensation. A lot of us have required counselling all of our lives. We’ve paid for all of that counselling. The damage done to us is a monetary issue, and it impacts on our lives.”

In 2007, a South Australian court awarded First Nations man Bruce Trevorrow $525,000 in damages for the emotional, physical and cultural consequences of unlawful removal from his mother when he was just 13 months old. This was a landmark win. Sadly, Trevorrow, who led a life filled with trauma, died in 2008, aged just 51.

A quarter of a century after the Bringing Them Home Report, the approach to reparations is slow, sporadic and piecemeal. Each state has compensation schemes with different caps and rules. In New South Wales, the maximum is $75,000. In Victoria, it is $100,000. In South Australia, those eligible received just $20,000. The highly bureaucratic system makes compensation difficult to access, and many die without seeing a cent. Additionally, the number of First Nations children removed and placed in out-of-home care has doubled since the apology.

A just demand. Reparations to First Nations people for dispossession and theft of their land, labour, children and identity is a demand the movement is beginning to organise around. As First Nations communities are collectivist societies and the assimilationist policies and national oppression impacts all, reparations that will deliver real improvements for all First Nations people are a winning approach.

Natalie Cromb, a Gamilaraay woman, supports reparations. Her vision is to “establish a fund in order for each community to be able to self-govern and self-sustain without having to ask for crumbs off the table.”

To win improvements, let alone what is needed immediately, will take a fight. In August, Prime Minister Albanese flatly rejected paying Indigenous Australians reparations for their treatment by the British colonists. But while Albanese and his ilk reject this approach, it is not a matter of if reparations are owed — clearly they are! The question for the movement is what form they should take and how they can be won.

Keiran Stewart-Assheton and Alison Thorne at Solidarity Salon after a rich discussion about reparations. Photo by Debbie Brennan

I spoke with Yuin man Keiran Stewart-Assheton, who is National President of the Black Peoples Union (BPU). He points out that First Nations people are “suffering tremendous levels of poverty and high homeless and unemployment rates.” While he supports financial reparations under capitalism to “help bring First Nations people up to the same level as the rest of the working class,” he advocates “Landback.” This “is about economic opportunities to better our communities and is ultimately the reparations that we want.”

In Australia, reparations are often linked with the slogan “Pay the Rent,” which is designed to highlight that the whole country is First Nations land and that sovereignty has never been ceded. Spot on!

But who should be paying up?

The BPU thinks the onus must be on “the colonial government to collect funds to pay compensation” and that the government should “collect the necessary funds from the capitalist class.” Stewart-Assheton adds that actually “making the capitalists pay their fair share of taxes would more than cover payments for the reparations.”

It is not a winning strategy to demand that ordinary working class people be the ones to pay. Demanding that those with nothing themselves fund the reparations is misguided liberalism that lets the billionaires — who have profited from the theft of First Nations’ land — off the hook. What the working class majority must contribute to this struggle is solidarity, supporting the First People, who are 3% of the population, to win payment from the ruling class. Australian capitalism has been built on the blood-soaked lands of the many First Nations of this continent. It has also been built on the stolen labour of workers — both First Nations and workers from every corner of the world brought here to toil since 1788. We have a common enemy.

Stewart-Assheton concurs: “There’s different intersectional angles of oppression, but ultimately we all have the common struggle — the struggle against the capitalist class. The non-Indigenous working class in Australia would only benefit from a First Nations-led revolution.” He explains that First Nations people are “very communal, and before colonisation we never had private property.” He elaborates that “looking after country is a big aspect of our culture” — something, he explains, involves taking care of everybody. Additionally, Landback is “about communal ownership of land. Primary industries will be run by the people for the people.” The BPU’s vision is a society where everyone will benefit by being housed, better compensated for their labour and through collective industry being run sustainably. “We are not looking to become the new landlords,” Stewart-Assheton quipped.

He also believes that meaningful reparations are “a revolutionary question.” He points to the Queensland scheme for paying $20,000 to those who have had their wages stolen as an amount “that would barely make an impact on somebody’s life.” Adding that “any kind of reparations that we are able to win under capitalism are likely to be more of these tokenistic payments that will not make any tangible difference.”

Last year, the National Comrades of Colour Caucus (NCCC) of the Freedom Socialist Party and Radical Women published a position paper titled, A Revolutionary Call for Black Reparations, to address the question of reparations for slavery. In it, author Emily Woo Yamasaki argues, “to be effective and to endure, reparations must be integrally bound to the battle to eliminate racism and capitalism and replace these scourges with racial solidarity and socialism.”

This paper explains that “the socially defined category of race and the ideology of white supremacy were fabricated to justify the ownership, forced labour, pillage, rape and abuse of African and Indigenous peoples. The supposed superiority of white Europeans was used to rationalise slavery and genocide in the Americas, as well as the theft of land, resources, and sovereignty of colonised people of colour around the world.”

Racism and oppression of First Nations are integral to Australian capitalism, just as they are to global capitalism, which makes the fight to win meaningful reparations a revolutionary question that will only be fully achieved in a socialist society run by working and oppressed people. With the billionaires booted out, there will be the wealth available to address very many injustices. Let’s take up this fight now.

A Revolutionary Call for Black Reparations, by Emily Woo Yamasaki, is available from Solidarity Salon, 113 Spring Street, Reservoir, Victoria, Australia.

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