Sydney, Australia – For many Australians the national Australia Day holiday is a chance to celebrate their country with a day off from work and a drink. For Indigenous Australians, it is a day of protest and mourning.
Several thousand Indigenous Australians and their supporters marched through the streets of Sydney to protest at what they have renamed ‘Invasion Day’, which marks the 1788 establishment of the first British penal colony.
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For them, the fact that the country continues to celebrate its national holiday on January 26 is deeply offensive and, in response, rallies were held in major cities across the country.
“Today is a day for protest. It is not a day for singing and dancing,” Aboriginal poet and Bidjara elder Ken Canning told a gathered crowd.
Carrying signs reading: ‘National Day of Mourning’, ‘Invasion Day is not a Holiday’, and ‘No Pride in Genocide’, protesters made their way through Sydney’s central business district chanting and blocking traffic.
“I’m sorry if we are inconveniencing you, but we have been inconvenienced for 228 years,” Canning told police officers who tried to direct the protesters away from major roads.
As the rallying group weaved its way past pubs, restaurants and shops, onlookers, many of whom were in the city celebrating the holiday in Australian flag-themed attire, took photos.
“Australia Day is a date linked to whiteness, colonialism and perpetuating the myth that Aboriginal people don’t belong in this country, so it is important that we always resist that,” Jack Gibson, of the Wiradjuri nation, told Al Jazeera.
The high levels of poverty, land-rights abuses and the disproportional imprisonment rate among Aboriginals were some of the many concerns raised by activists.
“A lot of blood has been spilled on this land, and it still hasn’t been recognised, even to this day. It’s important for them to know that their people died fighting for this land, and we are still fighting today for our rights,” said Caine Carrol, a public servant who was joined by his children at the protest.
The land that belongs to no one
Invasion Day protests are nothing new, and the issue continues to gain the national spotlight in as non-indigenous Australians increasingly shun traditional Australia Day barbecues and events to join the protests.
Mark Humphry is one such protester. “I’m proud of many things about my country, but the way we continue to treat Aboriginal Australians is certainly not one of them,” the 52-year-old teacher told Al Jazeera.
When Australia was colonised, the British used the doctrine of Terra Nullius, a Latin term meaning “land that belongs to no one”. The British have never signed a treaty with any indigenous tribes, and Indigenous Australians were not included in the census until 1967.
The way the government and non-indigenous Australians celebrate Australia Day has also changed significantly over the years. Mark McKenna, a history professor at Sydney University, said that the kind of national flag-waving patriotism that is a common sight on Australia Day would have been unthinkable before the 1990s.
“In the 1960s and 70s, as the country was moving away from Britain, the Australian government consciously set up January 26 as a ‘celebration’ and tried to whip up nationalism,” he told Al Jazeera. “We were looking for a story that was our own.”
“There is hardly any discussion about Australia’s convict history and what it means. It has somehow been severed from its origins as a date and turned into a feelgood, flag-waving thing. We don’t reflect much,” McKenna said.
The 1990s in Australia are often referred to culturally as the ” history wars” because of the academic debates surrounding Australia’s colonial history, particularly the violence inflicted upon Indigenous Australians.
It wasn’t until 2008 that the Australian government apologised to the Stolen Generations’ of Aboriginal children forcibly removed from their families and placed in missions and with white families by the government.
In the past several years, official celebrations of Australia Day have also changed to incorporate Australia’s multiculturalism, for instance, in naturalisation ceremonies, where migrants are officially granted citizenship are commonly held on the day.
” We can look at our past with great pride and with some regret, but we are not defined, let alone trapped by our history, as many other nations are,” said Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull at one such citizenship ceremony on Tuesday, after acknowledging Indigenous Australians’ long history on the continent.
Nakkiah Lui, an actress and playwright who has a Gamilaroi-Torres Strait Islander heritage, rejects the idea that Indigenous Australians could ever feel included in the national holiday. Along with many others, she wants the celebration date to be changed.
“While we are a multicultural and fairly cohesive society, it still means Aboriginal identity isn’t included in this idea of what Australia Day is,” Lui told Al Jazeera.
Celeste Liddle of the Arrernte nation, who is a trade unionist and a writer, said the continued celebrations on the day showed ignorance and a country yet to honestly come to terms with its history.
“The day celebrates the stealing of land and the beginning of the decimation of the longest-continuing culture and peoples of the world,” she told Al Jazeera. “Most people who live here have little knowledge of settlement, massacres, indigenous cultures and the like – and most continue to see all this as being of little worth.”
However Liddle disagrees with the idea of simply changing the national holiday to a different date.
“Until we have a treaty, there is no other suitable date for this country to commemorate,” she said.
Follow Jarni Blakkarly on Twitter: @jarniblakkarly