National Reconciliation Week is commemorated each year from 27 May–3 June, and encompasses two significant milestones in Aboriginal history —the successful 1967 referendum (27 May) and the 1992 High Court Mabo decision (3 June). The 1967 referendum amended the constitution to include Aboriginal people in the census and allow the Commonwealth to create laws for them. In many states across Australia prior to the referendum, Aboriginal people did not have the same rights as non-Aboriginal Australians, including the right to own property, be the legal guardian of their own children, receive equal pay to non-Aboriginal Australians and drink alcohol. The referendum led to the introduction of affirmative action, high-profile land rights cases and the erection of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra.
On 3 June 1992, the High Court of Australia decided that terra nullius, or land belonging to know one, should not have been applied to Australia, acknowledging that Aboriginal people have claim to the land that predates European colonisation. The Mabo decision was named after Torres Strait Islander Eddie Mabo, who led the fight to change land laws to recognise traditional ownership of land in Australia. Both events are significant moments for the Aboriginal civil rights movement, and are important steps towards a reconciled Australia.
Attending National Reconciliation Week events has always been important for Women’s Health East to champion unity and show our respect for Aboriginal people and demonstrate solidarity with our Aboriginal partner organisations in the Eastern Metropolitan Region. Mullum Mullum Indigenous Gathering Place and Maroondah City Council hosted a live streamed musical performance on Thursday 28 May. One of our Health Promotion Officers attended the performance and was moved by the melodic storytelling of proud Mutti Mutti man and singer songwriter Kutcha Edwards. His lyrics in Aboriginal and English language reflected on his birth on Country, his parents and eleven siblings, and his experience as a child who was forcibly removed from his family. During an interlude, Edwards informed the audience of the local history of dispossession: the Eastern Metropolitan Region was once a corridor of “homes” or institutions for Aboriginal boys and girls stolen from their families. This was followed by an evocative and emotional performance: “Is this what we deserve? We’ve been here since time began… we are the caretakers of this ancient land, but you still don’t understand.” Kutcha Edwards and his supporting guitarist and Venezuelan expat Daniel J. Marquez also noted the shared histories of Australia and Latin America, both places rich with Indigenous culture prior to European colonisation, and the resilience and survival of these communities.
The Yarra Ranges Shire also hosted an online event on Wednesday 27 May, Our Country, Our Future – Igniting a Shared Responsibility that included a smoking ceremony, cultural dance and music performance and keynote speakers Stan Grant and Uncle Jack Charles. One of our Health Promotion Officers in attendance noted that she found the stories from the Yarra Ranges Shire particularly compelling, as she is currently working remotely from the region at the moment.
This year, National Reconciliation Week occurred alongside a renewed focus on institutionalised racism, with the death of an unarmed Black man, George Floyd, in the United States while apprehended by Minneapolis police officers. Public anger has spilled into protests of tens of thousands in major cities across the US and the world, to demand justice for George Floyd. While the experiences of people of colour in the US and Australia are different, Aboriginal leaders have drawn attention to the commonalities in relation to policing, specifically disproportionate incarceration rates and deaths in police custody. Between 1991 and 2019, at least 424 Aboriginal people have died in police custody and unfortunately, this has not resulted in charges being brought against those responsible, or institutional changes being implemented to prevent further bloodshed. It is a sobering reminder of the need to learn about and counter racism in all its forms.
There are a number of measures that can and should be taken to remedy the disparities between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people, and the devaluing of Aboriginal people and culture including: increasing representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in policy development and governmental decision-making bodies; guaranteeing long-term funding for Aboriginal community-controlled organisations; protecting language and cultural rights including the provision of bilingual educational staff in schools for Aboriginal students; introducing reparations for the Stolen Generations; and implementing recommendations contained in the Unfinished Business: Indigenous Stolen Wages report, including a national compensation scheme.
But to bring about systemic change we must first commit to learning about the history of colonisation, resistance and the fight for self-determination for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander. .Everyone has a role to play in building relationships and communities that value Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, histories
and cultures. Against a global backdrop of racial divide and civil unrest, we must listen to and elevate the voices of Aboriginal people and recognise Aboriginal people as experts of their own experiences.
Here are some ideas of where to begin the journey to reconciliation: