Opinion //

Not a date to celebrate: Why migrants need to reframe our relationship with ‘Australia Day’

As long as we continue to detach the blessings that we enjoy now from the violence that Aboriginal communities suffer, we are participants in upholding the colonial project of Australia.

When one has spent the past several years trying to unlearn the pervasive colonial myths of this country, it’s easy to forget that much of the nation still finds no fault in celebrating January 26. But every year without fail, I am reminded of this fact when I scroll through social media and see posts from older relatives, high school classmates and family friends proudly smiling at the beach or throwing a barbeque at the park. Many of whom share a similar migrant background to me.

A 2020 survey from the Australian Management and Education Services found that 68 per cent of recent migrants and refugees planned to celebrate Australia Day. For many of us, January 26 is the anniversary on which we gained Australian citizenship. It represents the overcoming of the numerous hardships on the path to belonging, and being able to call Australia home.

I am a first-generation Filipino immigrant who moved here a year after I was born, and I have lived on stolen Darug land for the entirety of my life since. I’ve witnessed my family and others navigate the tedious process of obtaining permanent residency, face the uncertainty of being granted permanent residency as their visas neared expiration, or struggle to re-establish the careers they have left behind. All of this has occurred concurrently with the ongoing colonial dispossession and violence against First Nations people, which my family has benefitted from.

In her 2015 book The White Possessive: Property, Power and Indigenous Sovereignty, Goenpul woman and Indigenous academic Aileen Moreton-Robinson writes: “In the Australian context, the sense of belonging, home, and place enjoyed by the non-Indigenous subject—colonizer/migrant— is based on the dispossession of the original owners of the land and the denial of our rights under international customary law.”

Today, it is unacceptable to claim ignorance of the crimes inflicted upon Indigenous people beginning in 1788 with the British colony. We all know the history. It is written into school curriculums, despite the attempts of our education system to underplay the extent of the past and present violence First Nations people suffer. It exploded into public discourse with the global Black Lives Matter protests and dominates the news cycle every year on January 26. There is no excuse for not knowing.

As a migrant from a postcolonial nation with its own history of violence at the hands of European imperial powers, it’s easy to draw a false parallel between the plights of the Indigenous Filipinos and Australia’s First Nations. But unlike postcolonial nations such as the Philippines, the land which we call ‘Australia’ is the product of ongoing settler colonialism. 

In their 2012 article ‘Decolonization is not a metaphor’, Unangax̂ scholar Eve Tuck and Indigenous professor K. Wayne Yang distinguish settler colonialism from other forms of colonialism: “[In settler colonialism], settlers come with the intention of making a new home on the land, a homemaking that insists on settler sovereignty over all things in their new domain.” 

The familiar postcolonial narratives in our home countries of national heroes making sacrifices in the liberation effort against the nation’s oppressors does not ring true in the context of Australia’s settler colonial history. Where national liberation has occurred in our home countries, the violent and unjust theft of Aboriginal lands, culture and lives continues to happen today. We cannot absolve ourselves from the bloodshed of the past by being ‘grateful’ for  the blessings we enjoy now, blessings that are founded on initial and ongoing loss. As long as we continue to detach the blessings that we enjoy now from the violence that Aboriginal communities suffer, we are participants in upholding the colonial project of Australia.

In Filipino culture, one of our values is the concept of ‘lakas ng loob’. Translating literally to ‘inner strength’, it refers to the courage, character and work ethic required to uproot your whole life in your home country in search of better opportunities elsewhere. Related to this is the value of ‘pasasalamat’, which describes the gratitude many of us feel at overcoming the difficulties of establishing ourselves and adapting to life in the new country.

There is, undoubtedly, much reason to be grateful and to celebrate in our journeys as migrants who have prevailed, and continue to prevail, over adversity. But we cannot celebrate the struggles that we have overcome on January 26 without also condoning the violence by the settler-colonial state on First Nations people. We cannot claim that our celebrations are unrelated to the genocide and dispossession of Aboriginal people from their land because the very basis of our ability to celebrate so-called ‘Australia Day’ is founded on such dispossession and injustice.

January 26 is a day to unlearn the myths that the settler-colonial state of Australia has imbued within us. It is a day to learn the deeply horrific and painful truth of this country that isn’t advertised in migration schemes or pathways. It is a day to do the uncomfortable yet deeply necessary work of reflecting on how we participate in upholding the settler-colonial apparatus that continues to deprive First Nations people of their land and country.

But this work should not be restricted to just one day of the year. We must never forget the cost of our blessings, and constantly work to dismantle the ways in which the settler-colonial state exists within us and within the institutions that govern this country.

January 26 is not a date to celebrate.