Don't treat our first Reconciliation Day as just another day off work
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Don't treat our first Reconciliation Day as just another day off work

Australians generally, and Canberrans particularly, live in a lucky country. But our modern history begins with dispossessing Indigenous Australians. On May 28, the ACT will hold Reconciliation Day, becoming the first state or territory to specifically make this recognition.

The public holiday, whose theme is "don't make history a mystery", marks the anniversary of the 1967 referendum and comes at the beginning of National Reconciliation Week. It replaces Family and Community Day on the ACT calendar.

So what's the point of all this? What gives it more meaning than just another day off work and school?

Clinton Pryor, who walked almost 6000 kilometres from Western Australia to Canberra last year to raise awareness of Aboriginal issues.

Clinton Pryor, who walked almost 6000 kilometres from Western Australia to Canberra last year to raise awareness of Aboriginal issues.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

With my co-chair on the ACT Reconciliation Day Council, Dr Chris Bourke (who first pushed for the holiday when he was Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs), I believe this is more a signpost on the journey than a celebration. A public holiday should mark something of significance to the community, a point of reflection on who we want to be in the future with regard to reconciliation.

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Monday is a chance to ask each other: "What does reconciliation have to do with me? What can I do about this in my own life?"

Bourke says reconciliation requires four ordered steps: acknowledgement, apology, atonement and then forgiveness. He says the reconciliation movement has been gathering momentum since the mid 1980s via milestones like Paul Keating's Redfern speech, the Bringing Them Home report and the landmark 2008 apology to the stolen generations.

"Reconciliation will be the nation-building task of this century, that redefines what is Australia and what it means to be Australian, Bourke says, adding it will be a big call to build a nation "without shame, embarrassment, or the anger of dispossession, where non-Indigenous Australians can draw upon 40,000 years of Indigenous culture as their heritage".

But the bigger task now is how we get there. In part, that's by acknowledging that these issues make many of us feel uncomfortable. I accept that these are not easy matters to discuss, and there are no easy answers. If it was easy, we'd be there already. That's clearly not the case.

It's not the responsibility of Aboriginal Australians to lead reconciliation.

A mature Australia must come to terms with the fact that our history includes significant injustice, and that Aboriginal people are feeling the effects of that to this day. These are not remote matters from the past, and they go to the reality of people's everyday lives here in Canberra, where many live with the legacy of broken families, ongoing disenfranchisement and racism.

My own family, like many other farmers in southern NSW, lived with girls who were part of the stolen generations and had been taken to the Cootamundra Girls Home. It is haunting to hear their relatives speak of the pain that echoes down the generations when one child after another is removed from their parents and their country. It is haunting to hear about the everyday racism that still takes place in our productive and progressive city.

But it's not the responsibility of Aboriginal Australians to lead reconciliation. We all need to be part of the ongoing process of resolving wrongs and moving forward together.

Our main aim for the day is to start conversations about reconciliation across the Canberra community in workplaces, school rooms and around kitchen tables. Both of us believe that Canberrans can be proud that we're the first place in Australia to take this important symbolic and practical step towards social change.

So what will it feel like when we get there? Bourke says we've already had a hint of what happens when old wounds begin to heal. "I often think about that moment of joyous pride all Australians shared when Cathy Freeman won the 400 metres gold at the Sydney Olympics. That was a taste of reconciliation."

Genevieve Jacobs is co-chair of the ACT Reconciliation Day Council. Canberrans can mark Australia's first Reconciliation Day on May 28 at Glebe Park. The event will feature national and local artists, Indigenous history and cultural activities, food and more.

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