‘I don’t care who hears it because it’s true. And I think, why we are doing this [is] to make sure this doesn’t ever happen again.’
In the 1950s Bert was taken from his family in regional New South Wales when he was about five years old. He was taken to a government-run home for Aboriginal boys and stayed there for 11 years. The culture of the home was violent, abusive and dehumanising. The boys were referred to by numbers, not names, and they would often have to endure extreme punishments such as being tied to a tree, scrubbing concrete with a toothbrush while naked on winter nights, and being forced to fight each other.
Sometimes when a boy misbehaved he’d have to ‘walk the line’, making his way down a row of his fellow residents who were forced to punch and beat him.
The institution was also rife with sexual abuse.
‘A lot of things what happened at the home when we were raped … if we didn’t do what they wanted us to do we’d be flogged … I thought I was gay because a lot of the molestation that I had … it was [confusing] because we didn’t know who we were either.’
Bert was sexually abused throughout his 11 years in the home.
‘On a Saturday night, none of us used to go to sleep because we knew at 2 o’clock that the manager would come down and get two boys … it was a smorgasbord for paedophiles …
‘When you see a three-year-old little boy who can’t walk for a week that would make you sad [but] you couldn’t do anything because you knew it was your turn. One day it was going to be your turn. None of us missed out.
‘We only talked about it amongst ourselves … we lived in hell. We were strong – we as children – we’re still children today. We still call each other “boys”.’
When Bert left the home at 16 years of age he went looking for his mother and father.
‘When I went back home, I went to stay with my mother and father back to the reserve, the manager asked me what I was doing there. I said “Oh, I come back to see my mother and father”. And they said “What’s your mother and father’s names?” And I told them and they said “Oh no, they died last year”.
‘We were took with white people, so when we went to the blacks … blackfellas said “You’re not Aborigine, you’re white”, we go to the whitefellas, “Oh no, you can’t come here, you’re black”.
‘We still don’t belong anywhere. You know, my brother is 74 and he still won’t talk to me. And … he lived at [the reserve] and when I go out there they ask “Oh, what are you doing here?” We’re really caught.’
In recent years Bert has reconnected with many of the surviving boys from the home.
‘I never seen a lot of boys for 50 years but we still close to each other, we still part of each other and that’s why the group is so strong that we can sit down now and talk about it. If you were to ask me [about the abuse] five years ago … I would have told you to go and get stuffed. Because I was too ashamed because I thought it was my fault.’
Boys from the home across all years have been able to share their experiences and have found this has helped them begin to heal.
‘They can talk and they know they won’t be condemned for talking or won’t be called a liar. It was safe place. And I don’t care where we go …
‘We’re starting to learn now that we are a human being like everybody else. When we talk to you [the Commissioner] to get it off our chest it makes us stronger and you don’t know how much it does make us feel better … and we can keep on carrying on.’
Bert and some of the other boys, now travel around the country talking to the children of boys who were taken away from family and placed in the home.
‘We want to go to every town where all the home boys [are from] and tell them why their fathers never talked to them, and why they never loved their mothers.’
He has received some compensation from the state government but the process was convoluted and gruelling. The money offered was ‘take it or leave it’.
‘It was [cold] because I think, the punishments – we used to get paid a lousy little sixpence but we used to work from 5 o’clock in the morning till 5 o’clock at night doing all this work … they made fortunes off us. All we was getting was a lousy little sixpence once a month.
‘No apologies … They put a figure on it … I took what was offered to me … They just wrote a letter back saying “You can’t sue the government now because you’ve made an agreement”.’
Bert wasn’t offered any counselling or advised to contact police. All the men who abused him are now dead.
‘That’s why I’m goin’ go to Hell to try to find them, kick piss out them. Hell don’t frighten me because I was brought up in Hell. It doesn’t frighten me. I’ll find them.’
The home was closed in the 1970s. About six years ago Bert and his ‘band of brothers’ were able to walk through the gate for the first time in many decades. It was a significant moment that enabled him to reclaim his identity.
‘It was good to find him … got [my] name back.’
The relationship that the boys have is powerful. Bert and John, another ex-home resident, organised to meet up with one, now an old man, blind and seriously ill.
‘He had the biggest, biggest smile. And his wife said that’s the first time we ever seen him smile … We said goodbye to him and by the time we got the buses, he’d passed away.’
Bert worries about the future for his grandchildren and Aboriginal children generally.
‘What I want [from the Royal Commission], I know it’s a bit too late for my children but I want my grandchildren to walk proud. Being proud of what they are.
‘I’d just like to have Aboriginal men walk down the street without having people stare at them and say “There goes another [woman] basher” … I don’t want to walk around with that stigma because we’re all not bad … And our children, our male children got to walk around with that stigma. And there is nothing worse … the way they look at you … What I’d like to see; let our children … be what they want, be doctors and lawyers.
‘We sit down and talk now, we’re not ashamed, we’re not afraid to ask difficult questions … we were flogged into submission and now, as older men, now it’s our turn to ask the questions. It’s our turn to be answered.’
Bert still feels the rawness of his experiences in the home.
‘When we know we’re getting a hiding all the boys used to say “Never cry”. We cried in silence … it never left us …
‘We don’t care no more if people don’t believe us because we know what we are and we are living proof. And, if they don’t believe us, that’s their fault and not ours.
‘We looked after each other in the homes. And we start looking after each other now … we are a family … We was better men as children than they were as men.’