I always dread January. And not just because I now live in the UK and the sun has given up over here.
Even back home, fresh off the back of the holidays, family time and the joy of spending days at the beach and in the sun, there’s a dark cloud that hangs over this time of year.
The dark cloud is January 26th. Or you may know it as Australia Day.
Australia Day has only been an official holiday since 1994. Despite what some may think, it wasn’t the day Captain Cook landed, but the day Captain Arthur Phillip and the First Fleet arrived on the shores of Gadigal land and marked the beginning of a violent colonisation and the frontier wars.
Blackfullas have been protesting on January 26th since 1938 when it was declared a Day of Mourning.
As a child, I remember my mum telling me January 26th was ‘Survival Day’ for us, as Indigenous people. I don’t come from a politically-oriented family but I always knew our family’s experience of survival.
My great grandmother was part of the Stolen Generations. Taken from her home and put into Cootamundra Girls’ Home. Her childhood was torn apart. Her mother’s heart was broken.
Despite what they had faced and whatever racism I had encountered myself, I don’t remember a day when I wasn’t proud to be Blak, to be Aboriginal, to be Wonnarua. It was what my family had instilled.
I admit, I didn’t connect my own family’s experience with what this day symbolises and how others celebrating it was such a slap in the face. To be honest, it just came and went. I cringe now that I went so long without saying anything.
After I left school and became more engaged in understanding my peoples’ role and plight in this country, I understood very quickly why not celebrating was such an easy thing to do in solidarity.
I had to reckon with why people still insisted on partying, barbecuing and waving their flags.
Now, it is a national conversation that is growing louder and harder to ignore each year. Just two weeks ago, major retailers took Australia Day merchandise off the shelves due to declining sales - perhaps a sign that public sentiment towards the date is waning. A Roy Morgan poll in 2023 found a majority of under 35s supported changing the date.
There is one argument though, that I see, persists: “I want to celebrate Australia for the country that it is, today!”
Here is what Australia is today.
According to Human Rights Watch, Indigenous people are significantly overrepresented in the criminal justice system. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people make up nearly a third of the adult prison population, despite being just 3 percent of the national population.
In 2023, at least 19 Indigenous people died in custody, including a 16-year-old First Nations boy who died after self-harming following reports of “prolonged solitary confinement” the report said.
Indigenous children are 20 times more likely to be incarcerated than non-Indigenous children.
In September, Queensland suspended the Human Rights Act for a second time to allow children in detention to be held indefinitely in police watch houses, where adults are usually held for a short time in concrete cells.
In 2022, New South Wales introduced laws and penalties to specifically target climate protestors. Punishments included fines and up to two years in prison for protesting without permission. Human Rights Watch found state authorities were disproportionately punishing protestors.
The United Nations Human Rights Committee found that the Australian government had violated the rights of Torres Strait Islanders by failing to protect them against the impacts of climate change.
The minimum age of criminal responsibility in Australia is between 10 and 14 years old depending on the state or territory.
Is this the country people celebrate?
I’m not going to plead with anyone why they shouldn’t celebrate this day anymore when the reasons are so clear and so many brilliant blackfullas have come before me and put it much more eloquently.
For me, there’s not a lot of difference between the past and now because this country hasn’t reckoned with the truth.
Maybe it’s time to stop dreading this day and just let it come and go again while continuing to be Blak and proud, because existence is resistance and a joyful existence is even more powerful.
January 26th is a day for blackfullas to mourn, to protest, and to commemorate our own strength and survival, because as Professor Chelsea Watego says, it’s “another day in the colony.”