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Hundreds gather for Tent Embassy ‘Invasion Day’ protest

Andy Mason reports on a national day of mourning, with additional photography by Peter Donohue.

Photo: Peter Donohue

A group of Indigenous activists, along with a diverse array of supporters, gathered at the Block in Redfern yesterday to mark the passing of the 26th of January, a day referred to by many Aboriginal people as “Invasion Day” or “Survival Day”.

The group, numbering approximately 400 and including students from Sydney University, assembled at the Redfern Aboriginal Tent Embassy before marching to Victoria Park. Aboriginal flags and banners waved above the procession as people chanted “Always was, always will be – Aboriginal Land!”

Such gatherings have been a tradition among Aboriginal activists since at least 1938, when a group of protestors assembled outside Sydney’s Parliament House and declared January 26 to be a “Day of Mourning” for their people. 1972’s Invasion Day saw the establishment of the inaugural Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra, while in 1988 there were large protests against the Bicentenary celebrations.

On the Block currently stands the Redfern Aboriginal Tent Embassy, which was erected in July last year in protest against a planned commercial housing development, and which community members say will not provide affordable housing for aboriginal families.

Invasion Day 2015 marks the 227th anniversary of the landing of the First Fleet, and the beginning of the subjugation of Australia’s First Nations at the hands of the British Empire. The colonial conceit of Terra Nullius led the British to view Australia as an empty wilderness, declaring unconditional ownership of every corner of the continent from the minute the Union Jack was planted at Sydney Cove. This was in stark and deeply immoral disregard for the ownership of the Eora and the hundreds of other Indigenous groups of their lands, and conflict was the inevitable result.

Jan 26, 2015 (3)
Photo: Peter Donohue

Estimates of the pre-1788 Aboriginal population vary greatly because of their reliance on early colonial accounts, which are unreliable due to being estimates based on groups decimated by smallpox or frontier violence. Scientific estimates range from about 300,000 people to as many as 3,000,000. Whatever the exact number, the fact that the 1900 Census recorded the Aboriginal population as 91,000 gives some idea of the scale of violence perpetrated against this country’s First Nations.

Uncle Ray Jackson, a Wiradjuri Elder best known for founding the Indigenous Social Justice Association, began proceedings by acknowledging the Invasion Day gathering was taking place on the stolen land of the Gadigal people of the Eora nation. He went on to highlight the continuing injustices of Indigenous poverty, child mortality rates, disproportionate incarceration and Aboriginal deaths in custody – issues that Aboriginal people face at the hands of a government and society which is in every sense continuous with the First Fleet invaders. The group was also reminded of the search for justice for the policemen who killed T.J. Hickey, which remains unresolved after almost 11 years.

The group then heard from Ken Canning, a poet and activist from the Kunja nation in south-west Queensland, about the Northern Territory Intervention, “the greatest land grab since 1788”, which was instigated by Howard and continued under subsequent governments. He highlighted the role of income management, alcohol bans and community monitoring in facilitating takeovers of Aboriginal land by mining companies, a policy package that has been rolled out in communities outside the Territory as well. Canning also spoke of a second Stolen Generation, with the rate of removal of Aboriginal children rising higher than at any time in history. Finally, he read a poem, which powerfully conveyed the sense of despair felt by Aboriginal people at the conditions in their communities, telling a story of a mother’s sadness at being unable to provide for her newborn in a nation callously indifferent to her suffering.

The gathering was marked by feelings of loss and sorrow, and a deep anger at the inability of mainstream white Australia to reckon with its injustices both past and present. However, it was also cause for hope, a display of the same strength and resolve that Aboriginal people have displayed for 60,000 years, and a statement of intent by supporters willing to listen in the hope of seeing change in their lifetimes.