Australia Day/Invasion Day

Australia has many public holidays that make me uncomfortable.  At least two are devoted to gambling, and the Melbourne Cup also comes with the inevitable death of at least one competing horse.  Australia Day is probably the weirdest one though, when the entire country inflates their kiddie pool, fires up the BBQ and listens to the Hottest 100 on Triple J.  It is a time of intense nationalism when the shops are flooded with flag-branded merchandise in a way I've only ever seen in America.  At home we are so afraid of nationalism that displaying an English flag immediately designates you a fascist, and while Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland proudly celebrate their heritage on respective saint's days, we don't even get a day off work when St George's Day comes around.  England is intensely uncomfortable with its colonial past, but instead of starting an honest dialogue with communities from post-colonial nations or the other countries within the UK, we prefer to keep quiet and act like nothing happened.  Australia, however has the opposite approach - shout louder to drown out the voice of the oppressed.

In terms of Indigenous rights, Australia is miles behind its international counterparts.  Canada has traditionally had a poor record at dealing with their First Nations, once operating boarding schools with the purpose of Anglicising Indigenous people (similar to the programmes that created Australia's Stolen Generations), and only closed the last one in 1996.  But times are changing, as a class action suit paid out over $1.6 billion from 2006-2012 to former students in this system, and last year an Aboriginal woman was appointed Minister of Justice and Attorney General - a huge step in the right direction for a country where violence against Aboriginal women is disproportionately high.  And while New Zealand's national day commemorates the Treaty of Waitangi, from which the country became a Commonwealth and the Maori people were granted land rights, Australia Day is the inverse; marking the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788, and as such the beginning of a tragic chapter in Aboriginal history.

As travellers in Australia, often we are guilty of overlooking Australia's past because we are not investing in a future here, only living in the present.  Many backpackers I know here don't socialise with Australians at all, let alone Aboriginal people, and therefore are completely ignorant of the country's current social dynamics.  The problem with this is representation: if your only impression of Indigenous people is as touristic commodity, like the didgeridoo players by Circular Quay, then your eyes are being drawn away from the real issues being suffered by the community.  And imagining Australia as a nation of beer-swilling blondes is an insult to the Aboriginal people who were here a good 60,000 years before the first surf club or yoga studio was set up.

Across the country there are events on Australia Day that highlight Aboriginal communities, culture, and the ongoing struggle for veracity in Indigenous affairs.  Some use the term Invasion Day, others Survival Day, but either way it provides a powerful counterpoint to (white) Australian nationalism.  Yesterday I attended one such event in Queen Victoria Park, where there was music, market stalls, public services, and traditional dance, and what was particularly moving about it was the number of Aboriginal people in attendance.  Even though Newtown has a substantial Aboriginal community, visibility is low, and the usual crowd at one of Sydney's many free events or festivals is much more bourgeois.  Australia has a tendency to try and whitewash its image and history, so it is important to take some time to consider who suffered to make the country what it today - particularly on a day like Australia Day.

Images: the Redfern Aboriginal Tent Embassy; TJ Hickey protest last year; street art in Redfern; traditional welcome dance from the Invasion Event yesterday

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