Over the last decade, Ann Van Leerdam has been attending Survival Day marches and festivals that have deeply shaped how she now approaches January 26.
It was a few of years ago now that I first heard the phrase “change the date” in relation to Australia Day. Before then, the closest thing I’d ever heard was Invasion Day which I picked up and ignorantly threw around one year as a teenager, when I had determined to create an anti-establishment identity for myself.
Truth be told, though, this identity had less actual substance to it than Lisa Simpson’s attempt at veganism and lasted approximately just as long as that episode did.
Despite my moment of ostentatious opposition, Australia Day had always been a positive experience for me. I remember when I was young, we would go up to the local showground for fireworks and a concert. My mum would buy damper which we would eat warm with butter or golden syrup (although, I’m not exactly sure why… something to do with the first settlers being out in the bush or something?). And we would stick the free Australian Flag posters that came in the paper up in the front windows of the house.
In later years, Australia Day became all about having a BBQ and swimming and watching the Australian Open. As a young adult, it became about a big night of celebration at the local ‘arie’ (RSL), a day at the beach, and Triple J’s Hottest 100. I would think about Dorothy Mackeller’s famous poem “I love a sunburnt country” and feel very sentimental and patriotic for an entire day, before I went back to watching American sitcoms and dreaming about a holiday in Europe.
At some point, I became faintly aware that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples didn’t feel the same way about January 26 as I did.
I’m not quite sure why it took me so long to realise this. Why didn’t I connect the dots between my year 12 legal studies about Mabo with us celebrating 12 ships arriving here sooner? How was it that my brain filed our bicentennial ‘Celebration of the Nation’ (that left the song lyrics “Let’s make it great in ‘88” imprinted in my memory forever) so neatly alongside Year 9’s history of the Stolen Generation? What the heck was wrong with me?
These days I probably talk about ‘cognitive dissonance’ when trying to make sense of all this, but the truth is that I am ashamed of how little I allowed myself to think through all this, for so many years, pushing the realisation out of my conscious thought. But, like a pebble stuck in my shoe, there came a point when I just couldn’t ignore it any longer.
So here’s where I am at, regarding January 26. I’m in limbo land. And I don’t like it. I want to celebrate Australia – this land that I know as my home – for all that she is, even if there’s a lot that she isn’t.
But I don’t want to paper over the gaping hole in our history anymore. The wound of our national history isn’t a graze that you can stick a bandaid on and just keep on playing. This is the kind of wound that you need to go to the doctors about. That you need to get the hot water and the Detol and clean all the muck out of. And then you need to stitch it. And then you need to keep checking it and changing the dressing. And you might even need to have it re-stitched a few times, so that it heals nicely. This one just isn’t going to get better on its own.
I’m probably losing a few readers here, now that I’ve stopped with all the nostalgic references and I’m talking about such uncomfortable stuff. I get it. I’d like to ignore it, too. I’d like to get some of that antiseptic powder that doesn’t sting at all and that you don’t even have to endure the discomfort of applying it with the pressure of a finger. I’d like to shake it onto the wound from a distance and hope it does the trick – to throw money and make speeches and put a token face here and there. But this one’s going to hurt when we clean it out. And there’s just no getting around it.
Celebrating ‘Australia Day’ on January 26 is hurtful to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. It celebrates a past that was the beginning of the genocide of their people. And it’s not because they’re being overly sensitive or because they don’t believe in forgiveness. The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people I know personally are deeply accepting and endlessly extend forgiveness to both those who do and don’t ask for it.
And January 26th is a very different day for them. The stories that form the Australia day narrative are experienced differently, when you are an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person, because they are stories about an attempt to systematically annihilate your people. So the response is not BBQs and flags, but the tears of grief and proud resilience.
I know some of you are reading this thinking “It wasn’t me that did it” but the fact is, it is us who choose to celebrate it or not. And moving forward does require that we take responsibility for creating a future that doesn’t isn’t hurtful to our First Nations Peoples or wilfully ignorant of our history.
I don’t know what date is the best one for us to pick to celebrate our country together. I really hope it one in summer, because I really love the beach. But it’s not really about what date would be awesome, it’s about which date sux the most… and that date is January 26.
So I’m not going to stick my head in the sand anymore. I’m not going wash my hands of the matter. I’m not going to let myself be a part of continuing this injustice. I love this country too much to want it to stay so broken.
And I’m inviting you to stand with me - even if it’s painful – to say that we’ve got to change the date.
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As this blog shows, we are on a journey together as a Common Grace community to learn how to better acknowledge Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in our thoughts, prayers, conversation and actions.
We are guided by the leadership of Aunty Jean Phillips, Brooke Prentis, Larissa Minnieconn and others, who have suggested that we all watch SBS series, The First Australians, to become better acquainted the history of this land that we call Australia. Watch The First Australians free online here.