The history of Australia Day dates back to 1788, when the first British ships landed in New South Wales, leading to European colonisation that forever changed the lives of generations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people–and the effects continue to resonate today.
Because the meaning of Australia Day differs so substantially between communities, it can be complex for leaders, employers, and social groups to understand the right way to mark the date with respect, sensitivity, and mutual understanding.
Today, we’ll look at some of the simple ways you can acknowledge Australia Day while holding space for Indigenous communities who may find conventional parties and celebrations extremely difficult to reconcile with feelings of mourning and loss.
Inclusivity in Australia Day Events
One of the first ways to recognise the context and perception of Australia Day from the position of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people is to open a dialogue and pay attention to ideas, suggestions, and requirements from community leaders.
For example, you might:
- Speak with First Nations residents, colleagues, friends, neighbours and employees, or request input from elders or representatives in your community or area to inform and educate yourself
- Share your knowledge or understanding about the emotion, sense of reflection and grief that peers may experience around Australia Day
- Invite Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to form a core part of your event–of course, this invitation may not be accepted, but the spirit of inclusion, respect and acknowledgement is never wasted
- Encourage celebrants to listen to alternative views and take time to reflect and commemorate past loss, giving legitimacy and a platform for Indigenous community members to take pride in their heritage while giving voice to feelings of grief
- Be aware the current design for the Australian flag serves as a reminder of colonisation to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. If you must fly the flag, be sure to include the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags
Australia Day events need not be either a positive celebration or a thoughtful reflection; by coming together, we can place every perspective and experience on an equal platform. Holding a moment of silence before celebrations can be a simple yet powerful way to reflect.
As a national day of significance to all Australians, the best starting point is knowledge and education, so learning about the Traditional Owners of the land where you live or extending an invitation to conduct a Welcome to Country involves and includes all community members.
Approaching Australia Day With Sensitivity
While the meaning and value of Australia Day will be different between communities and individuals, the focus for all should be on coming together. In a country with diverse cultural identities, the debate about whether or not to participate in events or performances is nuanced and complex, particularly for artists and musicians who may find that their contribution to a commemoration is sanctioning a celebration on a day linked with profound trauma.
There is also a long-running debate about holding Australia Day on a date linked with colonisation and extensive losses of life and liberties. Should the date of Australia Day be changed? Perhaps–but simply moving a date on the calendar does not move us closer to reconciliation, progress, or equality across every heritage and culture.
Rather, a national day, on whichever date it falls, should encapsulate all living cultures, giving equal space and time to Indigenous communities as to other societal and cultural groups, where every voice is heard and every feeling respected.
Change begins with discussion and sharing experiences, even when those conversations may feel uncomfortable. For now, January 26th provides an opportunity to begin the dialogue, broaden learning and understanding, and generate an appreciation for the long history of survival and dispossession felt by many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.
Why the Way We Mark Australia Day Matters
Australia Day through the eyes of an Indigenous community member may look to be in stark contrast to Gaudia (non-Indigenous peoples) perceptions, but stepping forward to see their view is a compelling way to extend your knowledge. There is much to celebrate about Australia, but if we choose to do so on the 26th of January, we must also remember that, for many, there may be little to celebrate on this particular date.
Colonisation brought about deep losses of family, cultural freedoms, and sovereign rights to land and cannot be overlooked. Honouring an event that is so intrinsically linked with suffering, without acknowledging that pain, is both insensitive and in-compassionate, so our approach can make a meaningful impact on the long-term health, unity, and solidarity of every community or workplace.