Sophie is an Arts Honours grad from UWA. She currently coordinates Social Reinvestment WA, a coalition of non-profits working for justice reform, to reduce the overrepresentation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in custody in WA; and directs the Swim for Refugees program on campus. Words and views are her own.
When I was young my family, especially Dad, would be rapt with excitement leading up to the Australia Day fireworks. We’ve always lived in Vic Park down by the river, and every January 26th in the afternoon my Dad, some of his friends, and maybe an older sibling would walk down to Heirisson Island with eskies, a radio, and several blankets to snag a prime viewing spot for the fireworks. Family and friends would gather at our place, and as evening fell the rest of us would slap on thongs or get strapped into prams and begin The Walk. Past McCallum Park, over the first Causeway bridge, and onto the rocky shore that lines Derbarl Yerrigan (The Swan River). We would join my Dad who’d been waiting all afternoon and who was certainly already blasting the radio. Sometimes up to 30 or 40 of us gathered together. My siblings, cousins, friends and I would hang on the river’s edge; try to catch crabs or yabbies by hand, throw jellyfish at one another, and spy on the kangaroos in the bush as the sun set over the Perth city skyline opposite. As night fell, we’d devour a sausage sizzle, potato salad and settle in for the moment… the big show.
The first fizzle and shooting points into the sky would signal it, the beginning; followed by a loud crack, a faint odour of gunpowder, and the explosion of light. Shapes and colours dancing, painting the night sky for half an hour or more. At the end, we’d join the long march of over-excited feet trudging home in the balmy night. It was nothing short of fantastic.
In later high-school, and now an acne-riddled indie obsessed teen, I continued the family tradition of hosting Australia Day parties, to listen to the Triple J Hottest 100. My mates and I would gather in the weatherboard-with-the-pool-out-front and spend all day swimming, pushing each other into pools, moaning over the predictably shitty choice of Number One Song, getting up to “shenanigans.” One particularly eventful year a huge summer storm hit. With lightning breaking the air, all of us had to evacuate the pool and huddle on the front verandah as the thick drops fell on the hot red bricks – a petrichor smell rising over the streets.
For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, the 26th of January has very different memories. The arrival of the First Fleet on the 26th of January, 1788, signalled the beginning of over 200 years of land being stolen. Up to 70 percent of the Indigenous Australian population of 700,000 were wiped out by European diseases that had never been seen here before.[i] At least 250 documented massacres sought to commit genocide against Indigenous Australians.[ii] Indigenous women were raped. Indigenous men were tied in chains and imprisoned in places like Wadjemup (Rottnest Island)[iii]. The state sanctioned the forced removal of Indigenous children from their loving parents’ arms in the Stolen Generations, specifically to “breed out the black.”[iv] For 200 years, it was denied that anyone even lived on this land prior to British colonisation, until the High Court’s overturning of ‘terra nullius’ in the landmark ‘Mabo’ ruling in 1992.
This traumatic history is not yet in the past.
Today, in WA 73 percent of the kids sent to prison are Aboriginal.[v] Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ life expectancy is 13 years less than other Western Australians[vi]. And this very month, 5 Aboriginal girls have committed suicide. [vii]
Changing the date won’t tarnish my nostalgic memories of Australia Day, or my Dad. It won’t change generations of people to come’s excitement at the first burst of light and crack as fireworks cover the sky over our river. And changing the date won’t stop future teens trying to surf a boogy board across a pool, or kissing in a hammock under the blazing sun while Vance Joy plays on an infinite loop…. though maybe we should try to stop that last bit.
Changing the date WILL make Australia Day an inclusive day that every person in our country can celebrate, enjoy, and feel a sense of belonging. Of home. It WILL acknowledge the great cost suffered by First Australians due to colonisation, a cost still being suffered today. It WILL unify a nation that is currently divided on celebrating our country on the 26th the beginning of attempted genocide.
Reconciliation can only happen when we share truth and work for justice.
My home always was, and always will be Noongar Boodja.
The 26th always was, and always will be a day of mourning for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Also a day of Survival.
Because against all odds we have so many Aboriginal leaders forging a better world for all of us today. People like Baker Boy- who yesterday won Young Australian of the Year. People like Brooke Boney, who fearlessly spoke out to a national audience on this issue knowing the anger she would have to endure. Women like June Oscar AO, who has been a tireless advocate for the rights of women and girls, and a champion change maker in Fitzroy Crossing. Local legends like Uncle Patrick Egan, who today speaks and teaches others Noongar, a language 60,000 years old.
There’s lots to celebrate about Australia. Let’s celebrate it on a day we can all feel proud of.
Let’s hurry the fuck up and #changethedate.
Words by Sophie Stewart
[i] National Museum of Australia, (Current 2019) ‘Smallpox epidemic
1789: Smallpox breaks out in Sydney’ Defining Moments <https://www.nma.gov.au/defining-moments/resources/smallpox-epidemic>
[ii] University of Newcastle Centre for the History of Violence (2018) Colonial Massacres Map, <https://c21ch.newcastle.edu.au/colonialmassacres/map.php>
[iii] Kirsti Melville, (25 October 2016) ‘Rottnest Island: Black prison to white playground’, Radio National, ABC News<https://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-10-25/rottnest-island-black-prison-to-white-playground/7962940>
[iv] Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (April 1997) Bringing them Home:
Report of the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families <https://www.humanrights.gov.au/publications/bringing-them-home-chapter-2>
[v] Government of Western Australia Department of Corrective Services, Young People in Detention Quarterly Statistics March Quarter 2017 <https://www.correctiveservices.wa.gov.au/_files/about-us/statistics-publications/statistics/2017/quarterly/2017-quarter1-youth-custody.pdf>
[vi] Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2017) Trends in Indigenous mortality and life expectancy, 2001–2015: evidence from the Enhanced Mortality Database. Cat. no. IHW 174. Canberra: AIHW.
[vii] Shalailah Medhora, (18th January 2018) “’It rips your heart out’: Five Aboriginal girls under 15 died by suicide within days”, ABC News. <https://www.abc.net.au/triplej/programs/hack/indigenous-suicide-crisis-as-young-girls-take-their-lives/10726596>
Image originally sourced from here.