Today is a day for truth telling, not just celebrations

Jet skis with Australian and Aboriginal flags in front of the Sydney Opera House on Australia Day in 2021. Picture: Getty Images
Jet skis with Australian and Aboriginal flags in front of the Sydney Opera House on Australia Day in 2021. Picture: Getty Images

In the lead-up to today's Australia Day celebrations, many churches across the country held a Day of Mourning service, to reflect upon and lament the invasion and colonisation of this nation's First Peoples.

Certainly the church I belong to, the Uniting Church, has strongly encouraged their congregations to hold such services, to stand together with and listen to the wisdom of First Nations people in their struggle for justice.

But in practical terms, these services, held on just one day of the year, probably make little difference to the lives of our Aboriginal peoples and communities.

Did our Day of Mourning services help to remedy the ongoing grief and trauma arising from the stolen generations, or ongoing deaths in custody? Did the prayers we offered result in just and equitable treaties with First Nations peoples who were unlawfully dispossessed under the legal fiction of the doctrine of terra nullius?

I understand that many aspects of truth-telling are confronting, and can be distressing for those who may only be learning about these issues for the first time.

The reality is that many of the things that have been done to First Peoples, both by governments and colonists, are disgustingly awful and at times simply evil.

Aboriginal people were regularly murdered. Aboriginal communities, including women and children, were massacred. Waterholes were poisoned. Smallpox was introduced into Aboriginal communities. Aboriginal children were forcibly taken from their families simply for "being Aboriginal".

Aboriginal children were put into institutions, often run by churches, and subjected to regular physical, emotional and sexual abuse. Aboriginal women were regularly enslaved and abused, and Aboriginal men forced to work for rations rather than wages. Those who didn't comply were beaten, starved, or worse. Much worse.

As Aboriginal peoples, we cannot ignore the knowledge of the theft of our lands, the murder of our peoples, the impacts of the stolen generations on our families, and the many forms of harm and hurt caused to our people.

We live with the grief and trauma that is a legacy of a colonial past. Just as one example: Aboriginal young people have one of the highest youth suicide rates in the world.

Our young people are constantly impacted by racism and discrimination, are regularly abused and denigrated. They are losing hope, and they do not see any form of positive future for themselves in this country.

I understand that, for many non-Aboriginal people, there may be an instinctive reaction to adopt a defensive position.

Let me be clear - truth-telling is not about wanting people to feel guilty.

It is about acknowledging what has happened, and acknowledging the impacts of colonisation on Aboriginal peoples and communities in the past. Importantly, it is also about acknowledging that colonisation has legacies that continue to negatively impact Australia's First Peoples and communities today.

There are significant issues of injustice impacting Australia's First Peoples that remain unresolved, and while we of course cannot change the past, it is the Australian society of today that has the ability to take action to address these issues.

It is you and I, our families, our colleagues and our neighbours, who can take action to make a positive difference, to support our First Peoples, and to see justice done.


We can do this by learning about Australia's colonial history, and the impacts that colonisation and related government policies and practices have had on Aboriginal peoples and communities.

We can do it by reading material written by Aboriginal people, and by reading these views and perspectives through a lens of empathy and compassion, rather than letting instinctive defensiveness make us unreceptive.

Put yourself in the shoes of people who were and remain dispossessed of their ancestral lands, who were and are oppressed and discriminated against, who were and are dying at the hands of institutionalised racism - for example, the ongoing occurrence of preventable deaths in custody of Aboriginal people.

We can make a difference by taking the time to effectively engage and develop trust relationships with Aboriginal people and communities. By standing in solidarity with First Peoples to support their calls for justice and supporting the self-determined goals and aspirations of First Nations communities.

The solutions to many issues of injustice impacting First Peoples are known and achievable if our governments choose to implement them. Realistically, it is the voting public who have the power to influence governments to implement the necessary policies and programs that are needed.

Genuine commitment to reconciliation and justice for First Peoples is demonstrated through our ongoing actions. Inaction signals something very different, as succinctly stated by the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu: "If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor."

  • Nathan Tyson is manager of First Peoples strategy and engagement with the Uniting Church (NSW & ACT). He is Aboriginal and identifies with his Anaiwon and Gomeroi heritage.
This story Today is a day for truth telling, not just celebrations first appeared on The Canberra Times.