National News

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Catholics and Australia Day

Saturday 26 January 2019

 Sherry Balcombe, Co-ordinator Aboriginal Catholic Ministry, Media and Communications Office
On 26 January 1788, Governor Arthur Phillip raised the British flag at Sydney Cove, marking the British sovereignty over the continent's eastern seaboard. This time every year, Australia Day comes under scrutiny and becomes the focus of debate and a degree of controversy. While many Australians see Australia Day as a chance to celebrate the country's achievements, the date is no reason to celebrate for Australia's Indigenous people. Below, Co-ordinator of Aboriginal Catholic Ministry Sheree Balcombe offers a compelling argument for assessing our national holiday on behalf of Aboriginal Catholic Ministry and all Indigenous Australians. 
The 26th of January 1788 was not a day of celebration for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people nor was it for the passengers upon the first fleet – a mix of prisoners and military personnel. Perhaps it is time that we rethink the date upon which our Nation comes together as one to recognise and acknowledge the gifts that God has provided in our great southern land.

For the past year, those that sit upon the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Catholic Council (NATSICC) have asked their community, peers, friends and fellow Catholics if they celebrate Australia Day. The resounding response was no. That answer was not followed by hatred or vitriol, it was simply that they felt it was not meant for them nor was it mindful of the hurt experienced by Australia’s First People. For many, the opportunity to spend the day with family and friends is appreciated and our people understand and respect the pride that some Australians have for the day, however, the foundation of unity and inclusiveness is just not there.

Celebrating our nation on a day that harbors grief, invokes painful memories and ignores the true history of our society just doesn’t make sense. Given that the day has been celebrated on various dates and under different names in the past 100 years, what will be lost by moving the date? Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, in 1938, met on 26 January to lament and protest their mistreatment. Should the Government at the time have heeded their message, barbeques and fireworks would have occurred unabated on another day.

NATSICC would like to see Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and non-Indigenous Australians come together on a new date and celebrate our Country as one. Selecting a new date might be difficult but including our people in the discussion will provide ownership in the day and lay a new foundation upon which to grow the nation together. In his article ‘The Morality of National Symbols’ Fr Richard Leonard SJ has suggested that the 27th of May be considered. The members of NATSICC endorse this suggestion. The 27th of May is the day that Australia voted to grant citizenship to our people and to remove us from under the Fauna and Flora Act.

Additionally, a change of date should be accompanied by an educational program that tells the true history of Australia. This true history need not be a wholly negative process designed to promote guilt in non-Indigenous Australia but an authentic representation of the experiences of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, both in the settlement of Australia and in society today. For the sake of our children, we need to look forward and move forward.

As Catholics, we can and should be the leaders in embracing change for the sake of unity. We should not be content until Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people feel at home in the Church, and ultimately in this country ‘For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility’ (Ephesians 2:14).

Let us start with the celebration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Sunday – the first Sunday in July. NATSICC asks that all Parishes, schools and organisations begin to lead the way and set an example for others to follow. Place emphasis on this important day, include Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the planning and celebrations, invite our youth to attend and most of all, educate the congregation on the gifts and life experiences that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people bring to Jesus’ Church. Start in the pews and spread the word to our communities through your actions of love, compassion and understanding.
“For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one” (Eph 2:14).

Key Points:
  • A majority of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Catholics feel that Australia Day is not for them.
  • NATSICC endorses the call to change the date of Australia Day and suggests 27 May as a starting point for conversation.
  • A ‘True History’ educational program should accompany Australia Day to educate and promote understanding of the story of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Every Catholic School in Australia should teach this history.
  • The next generation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are carrying lots of pain and anger because of things like Australia day. Something must change!

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