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Outcry over word ‘Aboriginal’ continues as historians push for ban on changing certificates


Posted

June 30, 2018 05:16:49

The decision by a West Australian bureaucrat to redact the word “Aboriginal” from official documents has created an outcry among archivists, genealogists and historians across Australia.

WA is the only jurisdiction in Australia to deem the word Aboriginal offensive and remove it from historical birth, death and marriage certificates.

The practice only came to light last month after keen family historian Garry Smith told the ABC about the word Aboriginal being whited out from his great-grandmother’s death certificate.

He was told by the WA Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages the word had been redacted because it was an offensive term.

The incident has shocked archivists, genealogists and historians, who were unaware the registrar had the power to remove offensive material, let alone was exercising it.

It has also revealed a sharp divide between how the WA Government sees records of life events — as official identity documents they are charged to manage — and the views of researchers, including the growing number of amateur family historians, who see them as important historical documents.

Political correctness concern

Australian Society of Archivists president Julia Mant said removing the term Aboriginal was a “sledgehammer” approach to a sensitive issue.

WA Genealogical Society head Ian Simon said he was worried that historical documents had been changed “to fit the niceties or political correctness of the day”.

They are among those supporting a campaign driven by the History Council of WA for the WA registrar of births deaths and marriages to be stripped of his powers to remove information which he decides is offensive.

“It is a matter of grave concern that the WA Act permits the registrar to make changes to a certificate if, in their opinion, a word is ‘offensive’,” History Council president Jenny Gregory wrote to WA Attorney-General John Quigley.

“Such a decision is simply a ‘matter of opinion’. The main concern of our members and historians across Australia is the redaction of information relating to Aboriginality.”

Under WA’s laws, the registrar can remove a word or expression from certificates if it “is, or may be regarded as, offensive”.

NT doesn’t deem ‘Aboriginal’ offensive

Northern Territory registrar-general Jim Laouris is the only other Australian bureaucrat to have this power, but has chosen only to remove the term “half-caste”.

“The word ‘Aboriginal’ was not deemed to be offensive and is still included on certificates,” he said in a written statement.

WA registrar Brett Burns said many of the details included on old certificates such as “illegitimate” or “half-caste” were personal observations which may have had no basis in fact.

“Current legislation allows the registrar to remove reference to terms that may be offensive (or hurtful),” he said.

“That is why, and for no other reason, that birth certificates that reference Aboriginality [have the term] removed.”

His manager, Department of Justice director-general Adam Tomison, said there was no place for terms based on “someone’s interpretation at the time”.

“The word Aboriginal, there’s nothing offensive about that,” Dr Tomison said.

“But in the context of perhaps, if you’re a family of Indian extraction and someone has decided that your great-grandmother was Aboriginal, mistakenly, that may be an issue that causes them some distress.”

Registrar’s call backed by government

But Mr Smith said the observation that his great-grandmother was Aboriginal was factual, and she was a well-known elder at the Carrolup Mission, near Katanning.

“You’d have pretty poor eyesight if you didn’t know what a full-blood Aboriginal looked like,” he said.

“My great-grandmother was the last full-blood Aboriginal of her kind down there.”

The registrar’s decision has been supported by WA Aboriginal Affairs Minister Ben Wyatt.

“I don’t think — and I’ve inquired about this — it wasn’t intended to be particularly offensive to Aboriginal people or the term Aboriginality,” he said.

“It was simply trying to correct something which developed years ago and remove that annotation.”

Reality of history ‘not for the faint-hearted’

Ms Mant said she and other record-keepers had a difficult job in balancing their duties to manage official documents but also sensitively handle material which could offend people.

But she thought the decision to redact all non-standard information from certificates was “weird” and a “sledgehammer” approach that should be reviewed.

“It’s like they made a decision to take it out without realising that people are accessing their family records for family history and identification purposes,” she said.

“It’s definitely short-sighted.”

Ms Mant said it was important to consult with people about potentially offensive material.

That sentiment was shared by Mr Simon, who said family history was not for the faint-hearted. Many people made shock discoveries of bigamy, illegitimacy, and manipulated birth dates in their research.

“People can be offended by terms that were used in the 1800s,” he said.

“It was common to refer to someone as an ‘idiot’. There was ‘idiocy’ and ‘lunacy’ — one refers to mental illness and one refers to developmental problems.”

But he did not support removing this material from documents, and said it provided important historical clues for researchers.

Dr Tomison said he would consider giving the public more information about the redactions when they were buying extracts, but said the certificates were primarily a legal document.

“That’s the first purpose and that’s what the registrar is set up to do — record people’s births, their deaths and their marriages,” he said.

“I think on that basis their focus is going to be on recording the basic facts. They’re not really set up as a genealogical society or anything like that.”

Topics:

indigenous-aboriginal-and-torres-strait-islander,

indigenous-culture,

government-and-politics,

indigenous-policy,

perth-6000



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