SYDNEY (Reuters) – Thousands of Australians marked the country’s National Day celebrations on Thursday with marches in support of Aboriginal people, many of whom described the day a British fleet sailed into Sydney Harbor as “invasion day”.
In Sydney, the capital of New South Wales – Australia’s most populous state – social media showed a large crowd gathered for an ‘invasion day’ rally in the central business district, where some people carried Aboriginal flags and Aboriginal smoking ceremonies were held.
Similar protests took place in other Australian state capitals, including in Adelaide, South Australia, where about 2,000 people attended, according to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
Speaking at a flag-raising and citizenship ceremony in Australia’s capital, Canberra, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese honored the country’s indigenous people, who have occupied the land for at least 65,000 years.
“Let us all acknowledge the unique privilege we have of sharing this continent with the world’s oldest continuous culture,” Albanese said.
He said that while it was a “difficult day” for Indigenous Australians, there were no plans to move the holiday date.
An annual poll by market research firm Roy Morgan this week found that nearly two-thirds of Australians say January 26 should be considered “Australia Day”, largely unchanged from a year ago. The rest believe it must be “Invasion Day”.
Amidst the controversy, some companies have embraced flexibility about observing the holiday. Australia’s largest telecommunications company, Telstra Corp Ltd (TLS.AX)This year, it gave its employees the option to work January 26 and take another day off instead.
“For many First Nations peoples, Australia Day … marks a turning point that has seen lives lost, culture devalued, and connections between people and places destroyed,” Telstra CEO Vicki Brady wrote on LinkedIn.
Many of Australia’s 880,000 or so Indigenous people out of a population of 25 million lag behind on economic and social indicators in what the government calls “entrenched inequality“.
This year’s holiday comes as the left-wing Labor government in Albanese plans to hold a referendum on recognizing indigenous people in the constitution, and demanding that they be consulted on decisions affecting their lives.
The government plans to introduce legislation in March to hold the referendum later this year, with the Indigenous vote shaping up as a key federal political issue.
The constitution, which entered into force in January 1901 and cannot be amended without a referendum, does not refer to the indigenous population of the country.
Abi George, a protester in Sydney, said it was not a happy day for all Australians, especially Aboriginal people.
“No one has the right to celebrate genocide,” she said.
Another protester, Vivian McGowan, said the demonstration against the National Day was a show of Aboriginal support.
“I think it’s important to show up and grieve with them and be in solidarity with them,” she said.
(Reporting by Sam McKeith and Cordelia Hsu) Editing by Kenneth Maxwell and Raju Gopalakrishnan
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