Historically, of course, Australia Day represents the anniversary of the arrival of the First Fleet at what became known as Sydney Cove. The national public holiday marking this event is a fairly recent addition to the calendar, and many Australians will look forward to relaxing and enjoying a day off with friends and family.

And yet, for many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders the legacy of the day remains strong. Tomorrow represents not a day of enjoyment but a reminder of the wrongs that were meted out by the British and the ongoing implications of our colonial past.

It remains a contentious day in the calendar of our history.

In modern Australia inequality and disadvantage are major problems within Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. We need to acknowledge our colonial history and actively avoid repeating the wrongs of the past, while addressing the extent of current disadvantage.

Just last month our Youth Survey reported that twice the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people had experienced discrimination on the basis of race or cultural background than their non-Indigenous peers.

And in our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander report released in September, young people reported higher levels of concern about bullying and emotional abuse, depression, drugs, alcohol, gambling and suicide.

One in ten Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young men indicated that their happiness was zero out of ten, as did 5% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young women. Comparatively, only 1% of non-Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander respondents rated their happiness at this level.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander young people were also more likely to have spent time away from home in the past three years because they felt they couldn’t return and to have stayed away more frequently and for longer.

It’s a challenging read and while we see some positivity the overall picture painted is of a cohort of marginalised young people facing some really complex problems without the support they need.

But the rich heritage of one of the world’s oldest continuing cultures also gives us much to celebrate. Many of us have much still to learn about the culture of our First People.

We should recognise the strength and resilience Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities have shown, both before the British arrived on these shores, and throughout the subsequent centuries of mistreatment.

As such, I believe we should use this day as an opportunity to reflect on how we can continue our efforts to create a reconciled and more equitable Australia.

Australia Day should reflect our past and our future as a nation. Australia has matured since the arrival of that First Fleet, we have changed and developed and of course I don’t suggest as individuals we are responsible for what occurred two centuries ago, but the legacy is still there and issues such as the stolen generation remain very raw for many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families and communities.

But we are responsible for today. Each and every one of us can play a role in fighting injustice and inequality. That includes accepting and acknowledging the past and fighting for a better future for all Australians regardless of colour, religion, gender, age or sexual orientation. We can work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People to address disadvantage and create a better future for all Australians.

Catherine Yeomans

Catherine Yeomans
CEO Mission Australia


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