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The other side of Australia Day

Emma Macdonald

As the vast majority of Canberrans relish a day off work and join with friends and family to celebrate Australia Day, the country’s Indigenous population will endure 24 hours of “Survival Day”.

Nicola Barker (pictured above) is a 23-year-old social work student from the Australian Catholic University. The proud Ngemba Muruwari woman from Brewarrina finds the only tolerable way to get through 26 January is to gather with her Indigenous community in what is often a highly emotional day for the country’s First Peoples.

As her non-Indigenous friends revel in the Australian flag and sausage sizzles, she feels the high spirits and lack of recognition of her community’s pain is “another kick down” after 200 years of dispossession and intergenerational trauma.

Nicola, like many Indigenous Canberrans, usually spends the day at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy. This year, however, she is attending the Yabun Festival in Sydney to celebrate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural practices, music, dance and art.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics there are around 6700 Indigenous people in Canberra – with Indigenous Australians constituting about three per cent of the population.

For Nicola, it hurts that 97 per cent of her country men and women celebrate a day that symbolises colonisation of the First Peoples “and the beginning of massacres, the Stolen Generation, slavery, torture, rape, displacement and loss of land, culture and identity”.

“It genuinely distresses me that Australia is the only country that depends on the arrival of the Europeans’ date to be our official national day.”

Similarly, the ACT’s 2015 Woman of the year, Indigenous advocate and anti-violence campaigner Robyn Martin finds the day steeped in deep sadness.

robyn martin

“I’ve never celebrated Australia Day, why would I? For Aboriginal people it’s a sad time, a time to reflect on this country’s history and all the atrocities that happened during colonisation – the loss of so many things that we will never get back.”

Robyn, who runs a women’s refuge, will make her way to the Tent Embassy or attend a community function “that celebrates us as a people who have survived this country’s violent history”.

She will witness all around her “drunk white Australians enjoying a public holiday with no thought to its history and the impact that it has on Black Australia”.

She would love to see the Australia Day date changed in order for the country to celebrate a more culturally appropriate milestone. But she does not believe she will see such progress in her lifetime and feels that Australia is essentially a racist country.

For Nicola, hearing the apology from the Rudd Government in 2008 was a symbolic and welcome gesture.

“I was sitting in my Year 9 History class when our entire school stopped and watched our Prime Minister Kevin Rudd delivered a well-overdue speech other governments before his should have delivered. Nevertheless it was appreciated. Our country should continue to move forward in changing the date (of Australia Day) so that our First Nations’ Peoples who are the traditional owners can join in celebrating without disrespecting the history.”

Similarly, ACT NAIDOC Person of the Year for 2016, Dion Devow, says he felt a genuine sense of connection with white Australia after the Rudd apology.

Dion Devow

Dion Devow, ACT NAIDOC Person of the Year 2016

Dion, who was born and raised in Darwin and has heritage from both Palm Island in Northern Queensland and Darnley Island in the Torres Strait, said it brought the two Australian communities closer.

“To be honest, I always felt somewhat disconnected to non-Indigenous Australia, and only really felt like an Australian when Kevin Rudd apologised on February 13th 2008, for the atrocities that Indigenous Australians experienced at the hands of past government policies. This may sound weird but it’s true and many of my friends and family have expressed similar views.”

Dion runs a successful Indigenous business Darkies Design, which supports Indigenous designers and deliberately reclaims a negative and inappropriate word in its title. For Dion, 26 January gives him mixed emotions.

“I am obviously a proud man who is of both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent, and proud to be Australian. I feel all of these emotions… I feel angry, I feel sad, I feel tired, I feel mad, however, I don’t hold onto those feelings, I let them go, because I have feelings that override these feelings and they are feelings of being privileged, and a sense of pride.  I’m privileged to be a part of the oldest living culture in the history of the world, privileged to be a father, a husband, a son, a brother, and privileged to live in what I believe is the best country in the world.”

Rather than focus on anger on 26 January, Dion chooses to celebrate his cultural strength and family.

“Sure I could hold onto feelings of resentment and be angry with the world for the injustices of the past, but what good would that do for me and my family?  I spend Australian Day with family and friends, and my wife and children at events that have more of a focus on Survival, with other Indigenous Australians, because to me that is what Australia Day represents to me, the survival of my people…”.

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Emma Macdonald

Emma Macdonald has been writing about Canberra and its people for more than 20 years, winning numerous awards for her journalism - including a Walkley or two - along the way. Canberra born and bred, she’s fiercely loyal to the city, tribally inner-north, and relieved the rest of the country is finally recognising Canberra’s cool and creative credentials. More about the Author

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