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Thousands of people in Australia defied public health concerns and protested against the mistreatment of Indigenous people on ‘Australia Day’, the national holiday marking the 1788 arrival of the British First Fleet that is known as ‘Invasion Day’ by Aboriginal people.
In Sydney, as many as 3,000 people joined rallies calling for the national day be changed, although state health officials had refused to make an exemption to social-distancing rules to allow for crowds of more than 500 people.
Police said there were five arrests for minor offences.
For many Indigenous Australians, who trace their lineage on the continent back tens of thousands of years, the holiday symbolises the destruction of their cultures by European settlers.
Chants of “Black Lives Matter” and “always was, always will be Aboriginal land” rang out in cities across the country, television footage showed.
“Until they abolish Australia Day then maybe Invasion Day will be a bit quieter,” said Lizzie Jarrett, an Indigenous Australian protest organiser in Sydney.
“At this moment, until this nation celebrates genocide, we will not be silent, we will not stop and we will keep coming.”
Too many Australians still think January 26 is a day of celebration, but for Aboriginal people across this country, it’s a Day of Mourning.
— Lidia Thorpe (@lidia__thorpe) January 15, 2021
— Isabella Higgins (@isabellahiggins) January 25, 2021
Television footage showed protesters gathering early on Tuesday in small groups to comply with the limits. Police had warned people could face fines and imprisonment for breaching public health orders designed to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus.
In Melbourne, rally organisers said protesters would be sorted into groups of 100 people with 10 metres (30 feet) between each to comply with social-distancing rules.
Images posted on social media, however, showed a larger group of masked protesters gathered at one of the major intersections of the city. They held up their fists in the air and chanted: “One Voice”.
Thousands of people, many unmasked, also took to the streets in Hobart, the capital city of the southern island of Tasmania.
While thousands of people flocked to beaches and picnic spots around the country to celebrate the national day, many official events were cancelled due to coronavirus restrictions.
Australia has fared better than most other developed economies in the pandemic, with just under 28,800 cases and 909 deaths, mostly in Victoria state. Victoria recorded its 20th straight day on Tuesday with no local transmission.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Australia Day represents how far the country has come since the First Fleet sailed into Sydney Harbour to start a penal colony. Despite encountering Indigenous people, the British saw the the land as unoccupied.
“There is no escaping or cancelling this fact,” Morrison said at a ceremony in Canberra. “For better and worse, it was the moment where the journey to our modern nation began. We have risen above our brutal beginnings.”
Australia’s Indigenous people make up about 3 percent of the country’s 24.6 million population, but lag behind other Australians in almost every indicator from health to life expectancy and employment. They are also more likely to spend time in prison, and more likely to die in police custody.
Last February, Morrison admitted that a government attempt to “close the gap” on health and wellbeing was failing and a source of “national shame“.
Anthony Albanese, leader of Australia’s Labor Party, said that the country has to acknowledge that its history “doesn’t date back to 1788. It dates back more than 65,000 years.
“Australia Day means different things to different people. For me, it’s a chance to acknowledge the past, recognise the present, and hope for the future.”
Grace Tame, who was declared as Australian of the Year on Monday, also expressed her support for a change of date for the country’s national day.
“It costs us nothing as a nation to actually change that date. And it would mean a lot to that community and to our national community. I think that’s important,” she said in an interview with The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald newspapers.