Aboriginal leader Mick Dodson said Sir Ronald Wilson had made a “fantastic contribution to this country” and his death represented a “tremendous loss” for all Australians.
Sir Ronald, 82, died in Perth on July 15, after fighting a long battle with ill-health.
Mr Dodson, a former Aboriginal Social Justice Commissioner, worked alongside Sir Ronald in leading the national inquiry into the forced removal of Aboriginal children from their parents, now known as the stolen generations.
The inquiry’s report, titled Bringing Them Home, detailed the extent of the forced removals which separated thousands of Aboriginal children from their families until the 1970s.
“He was very energetic and a great intellect and it was a pleasure to work with him because he was a very kind-hearted man and I thought the inquiry changed him like it did a lot of us,” Mr Dodson said.
In his role as President of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC), Sir Ronald oversaw the inquiry and called on the government to make a formal apology to Aboriginal Australians.
Despite Prime Minister John Howard’s steadfast refusal, Sir Ronald repeated his demand in the years that followed.
“The word sorry begins the process of healing and what people must realise is that we are not talking about events of long ago,” Sir Ronald said in May 2000, three years after the report was tabled in parliament.
“We are talking about contemporary suffering of a significant section of the Australian people.”
Sir Ronald overcame a tough childhood in Geraldton, in Western Australia, to climb the heights of the Australian legal profession.
“He came from an impoverished background and lost his mother at a young age and then came back after the war (WWII) and finished his education and got his law degree and then worked tirelessly to help others,” Mr Dodson said.
After serving as Spitfire fighter pilot for the British Royal Air Force, he returned to Australia and completed a law degree to become a barrister and solicitor in 1951.
In 1963, Sir Ronald became Western Australia’s youngest-ever Queen’s Counsel appointee.
Six years later he went on to serve as Western Australia’s Solicitor-General for 10 years, before being appointed to the High Court in 1979.
He sat on the High Court bench until 1989.
He is survived by his wife Lady Leila Wilson and their five children.