In his 72 years, Jack Charles has been many things. Glass beveler. Junkie. Thief. Convict. Actor. But a constant has been the pursuit of his birthright since, at four month old, being snatched from from his mother and put into a boys’ home.
“I was the only Aboriginal and I was there to be assimilated,” says Charles. “And it well and truly worked with me. All sense of Indigenousness was wiped out of me. I would never have any claim to it other than the fact that I looked Aboriginal.”
Charles is part of Australia’s “Stolen Generations,” a government policy (approximately 1905-1969) that saw Aboriginal kids forcibly removed from their families and placed into white foster homes or institutions.
On the phone from Australia, he comes across as friendly and funny. But make no mistake – he’s got something to say. And through his Vancouver show Jack Charles V. the Crown, he wants us to hear him
“I’m still extremely pissed off that the system was designed so that I should never claim my Indigenousness. It was a criminal act, from my observations, from my experiences. We haven’t termed it as a criminal act, that I had to be assimilated, and all signs of my Indigenousness had to dissipate, and I had to not care about it. But I believe that’s a criminal act in and of itself.”
That’s why he’s become an outspoken public spokesperson and role model for many of the Stolen Generations. “[The show’s] about coming out of my institutionalization, trying to make my way, counseled by myself. Once you left the home, or the institution in those days, you were doomed to try and counsel yourself through life, especially after all the abuses that went on there.”
“It’s been difficult. I was continually told that I was an orphan.”
But Charles had family. Sisters, brothers, mother. All alive.
“Once I found out that there was a suburb of Melbourne with Aboriginals, I went to it. And that was a criminal act. When you ‘failed’ your foster people, the first response by the Aboriginal Protection Board was to jail you. And that’s where I met all the other failed adopted kids, and that led me into a life of crime.”
He began acting at 19 but did several stints in jail while juggling burglary and heroin addiction. In 1971, he co-founded Australia’s first Aboriginal theatre group at the Pram Theatre in Melbourne.
It been up and down since, but he’s clean. Recently, he was voted Victorian Senior Australian of the Year. And he’s up for Australian Senior of the Year in January.
“Australia has acknowledged me as an important player in Aboriginal politics, lore and education, to get people to learn our history,” he says.
“I get a lot of young ones coming up to me now. They want to know how they can tell their story. And I’ve heard them. They’ve got stories.”
As does Charles, the subject of a 2009 documentary called Bastardy that reportedly helped turn his life around. Its tagline? “Addict. Homosexual. Cat burglar. Actor. Aboriginal.”
So how does he describe himself?
“A gentleman,” he says.
Some things are just in the blood.
Originally published in Vancouver Metro.