For Gilbert Wanganeen, ‘sorry’ is just the start

By Charmayne Allison

A 1997 NATIONAL enquiry estimated as many as one in three Indigenous children were removed from their families between 1910 and the 1970s.

In 1964, Echuca’s Gilbert Wanganeen was one of them.

So when Kevin Rudd apologised to the Stolen Generations on February 13, 2008 for the policies which ‘inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss’ on so many, it was more than just a speech.

For Gilbert, it was a massive step forward in seeing further healing for his people — and for him.

Born on Point Pearce Mission in South Australia, Gilbert was just four years old when he and his older brother were removed from their family and placed in foster care.

He moved three times in the next 12 years, enduring racial slurs, regular beatings and – above all – the pain of feeling he didn’t belong anywhere.

Gilbert found acceptance in one place — on the footy field.

Looking back, he realised sport was what kept him on the straight and narrow throughout those devastating years.

Leaving foster care when he was 16, Gilbert set out to find his family.

And slowly gathered up the pieces of a life, and an identity, torn apart.

“It was very hard for me to come back into the community. But I was lucky to find my family again. I found my older sisters and older brothers in Adelaide,” he said.

“I was able to live with them for a while but I soon realised I was raised to have a different purpose. So that’s why I ended up moving to Echuca.”

Where Gilbert has worked as the Njernda social and emotional wellbeing officer for 11 years.

It’s also where he met his wife Lee. They’re now proud parents to four children and grandparents to eight (soon to be nine) grandchildren.

Above all, Gilbert is doing all he can to ensure what happened to him never repeats itself in future generations.

“I didn’t want to come out angry. So I just chose to come out and say what had happened to me in my life will never happen again,” he said.

“I just want to adjust to it, learn from it and make sure I give my kids love, belonging, hope, values and purpose.”

While Gilbert said his kids know his story, he said he never let them carry around his sadness or anger.

“We’ve all got backpacks on of all the tough stuff we’re carrying in our hearts or heads. I had one on – but I choose not to hang it onto my kids,” he said.

While Gilbert said the National Apology to the Stolen Generations was an excellent step forward, he said there was still a lot of work to be done.

“We’re still living in a world where acceptance is a struggle,” he said.

“We’ve got a beautiful country here. If we can just live and work together, this will be a much better nation.

“But I believe we’re working towards it.”