In Cathy's heart, sorry is right thing to do

CATHY Freeman finds it hard to articulate why her people need an apology, but deep down she knows it's the right thing to do.
``I am not going to try and break down the reasons why an apology should be given,'' she tells The Weekend Australian. ``But in my heart I feel there is a real need for it.
``I have not studied the claims for compensation, so I don't feel I can comment on that at this stage until I have distilled more information.
``But saying sorry will mean so much to so many people. It is going to be a really proud moment for us.
``For my family, it allows some kind of healing and forgiveness to take place where there is less anger and bitterness in the hearts of people. It takes away the pain. We will never forget, but this allows us to forgive.''
For Freeman, the apology to the Stolen Generations to be delivered by Kevin Rudd on behalf of parliament next week, will be very personal.
Since stepping away from the track, she has been on an emotional journey into her own history, trawling through government archives.
And what she has learned has been painful: how her mother, a member of the Stolen Generations, was refused permission to visit her parents at Christmas; how her great-great-grandfather fought for Australia in World War I but, as an Aborigine, was never paid for his service and returned, not a hero, but a slave.
The discoveries have only strengthened her feeling that an apology is not only necessary, but is decades overdue.
``In the Prime Minister doing this, we are seeing understanding and acknowledgement,'' she says. ``In recent years, since I stopped competing, I have had the time to investigate my own heritage, time to find myself, to find out about my own family and what happened to them.
``The apology is essential, and it is the right thing to do. Saying sorry is like opening a space for us all to become unified. If we as a nation are going to move forward, the best way is together.''
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Freeman's mother, Cecilia Barber, was born on Palm Island off Townsville in North Queensland. Like scores of other children in the troubled community, she was taken from her mother and placed in a church-run dormitory.
Banned from speaking her native language, she was not allowed back with her family, and was separated from her siblings.
``When I learned that in 1963 my parents were not allowed to visit their families for Christmas, it was so cruel,'' Freeman says.
``My great-great grandfather, Frank Fisher, volunteered from Cherbough mission and fought in World War I -- fought for this country and defended this country. He was never paid his wages as a soldier, yet those beside whom he fought were given their money. He was in the 11th battalion, Light Horse, in Egypt. This Aboriginal man fought for Australia as a free man and then came back to this country as a slave.
``I had no idea about all this -- mum never shared stories like that with me. She was aware. Imagine having to ask permission to go and visit your parents -- and being rejected.
``I will never really understand what it is like for a mother to have to protect her child and being unable to do it. It was disgusting. Horrible.''
Freeman, who was born in Mackay, north Queensland, in 1973, first visited Palm Island as a 10-year-old but has been back five times in the past year alone.
``After I won my gold medal at the 2000 Olympics, I took it to Palm and showed the children there, and they were blown away,'' she said.
She established the Catherine Freeman Foundation last year to leave ``a legacy of support focusing on education and sport for those generations of indigenous girls to follow''.
``I speak to the children when I visit (Palm Island), and to the council, the police, the teachers -- and try to get across the message that if they have a dream they, too, can achieve their goals. My story can be their story.
``I encourage them to live the best lives they can -- a message built on the need for education, health through sport.''