I grew up in Gilgandra in western New South Wales and in our community, January 26 was never a celebration but always a point of discussion. It wasn’t until I moved away to Newcastle to do my undergraduate degree that I realised, “Oh my God, lots of people outside my world celebrate Australia on this day.”
I’ve always been uncomfortable with it because in my hometown the conversations were about how we didn’t really fit into that picture of Australia. I was a bit affronted by the celebrations I saw, especially when you understand what things like the flag and the Union Jack mean for First Nations people.
For us, these are symbols of invasion, colonisation, massacre and slavery. When I see people celebrating those symbols, it makes me realise there is complete ignorance around the fact that these people are essentially dancing on the graves of our ancestors.
During my time in Newcastle, we’d get a group of blackfellas together and we’d come down to Sydney to march and surround ourselves with like-minded people who refused to celebrate those symbols.
Now that I live in Sydney, I march every year but I’ve never advocated for changing the date. We don’t need to change the date; we need to change the way we remember it. Because, for us, it’s not just a public holiday, it’s a day of mourning. I absolutely do think that we are a nation capable of having respectful, reciprocal conversations that are grounded in a reckoning of addressing the unfinished business of our past.
A lot of the change recently has come from millennials stepping up to the plate and having these difficult conversations about what this day means to First Nation Australians.
We always have to be driven by the fact that our nation can do better and it can be better.
We have to create that unifying moment when we are all capable of celebrating what it means to live here on this continent.
One example of something that can help us move forward and unify is a referendum about enshrining a First Nations voice in the Australian Constitution and achieving systemic changes that are worthy of celebration.
To me, January 26 could be a day of healing but we need to have those conversations around it first. There is unfinished business on this soil. I remember last year taking my niece and nephew to the protest and at that time they would have been eight and nine.
In the car on the way there, my nephew turned to his sister and said, “Sissy, what are we marching for?” And she replied, “We’re marching for our land back!” I think it’s telling that their generation is already having those conversations and dealing with that reckoning inside their own little minds.
But I also see it as a warning, because unless we address this unfinished business, our next generation will inherit all these problems.
It is time for us as adults to be brave enough to have these conversations so that this pain is not carried on.
Teela Reid is a lawyer, activist and proud Wiradjuri and Wailman woman.