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  • Writer's pictureAimee Edwards

Why I Don’t Celebrate January 26th!

I wanted to kickstart this post with a picture (thankfully, a mental one). A five-year-old girl runs wildly around a caravan park, her cousins in tow. She is wearing an Australian flag bikini, complete with “matching” green and gold thongs. She jumps off a ledge into the mangroves below. Tiny crabs scurry back into their holes at the sound of the impact. She continues on her mission, a huge tree the only thing in her sights. She quickly ascends the behemoth trunk but loses her footing a few feet off the ground, tumbling onto the mangroves below. 

Now, I don’t know if any of you have ever fallen into a literal pit of mangrove sprouts, but I can tell you from personal experience that the only thing that hurts more is the pinch of the few bigger and much braver crabs that are pissed that we had cooked their friends for lunch. Naturally, I jumped up immediately, climbing my way back up to our campsite, crying to my Mum. I want to tell you the crying was a result of the pain but truth be told, it was because of the huge rip now in the pants of my Australian flag bikini. My semi-drunk mother laughed her way through the whole ordeal, making me change, much to my disgust, and we got on with our Australia Day.

I tell you all of this not because I want you to laugh at me, though I’m sure plenty will. Instead, I want to acknowledge a simpler time, when I didn’t understand what I was celebrating, but I loved it just the same. My mum will often bring up Jan 26s like these when I try to justify why I no longer celebrate, and I don’t like to admit they happened, but as an adult, I think it says a lot about you if you can admit; hey, I was wrong, and I’m going to change. 

I’m ashamed to admit that it was only a few short years ago that I really stopped celebrating the day. I graduated high school 11 years ago, and when I was at school, there was really no conversation in my community about what that day truly represented - it was just considered a final beach day before school went back. I then went to a university that is largely made up of immigrant and international students- while multiculturalism is a huge focus, there was very little discussion around indigenous communities and Jan 26 was always widely seen as a day to celebrate. 

It was only toward the end of my early twenties, as I finished my studies and began diving into my own independent research, that I really began to understand. For those who don’t know, January 26 is not the day Captain Cook declared Australia British land; that happened on August 22 (though, to be honest, I’m not sure we should be celebrating that day either). January 26 1788, is, in fact, the day that the first fleet arrived in Australia, beginning convict settlement in the country. It is also the day that a frightened group of brave Indigenous people were largely massacred. It is estimated that in those early years, between 20,000 and 60,000 Indigenous people were murdered.

Now, I want you to take a second and consider a hypothetical. Your entire family and all your friends are murdered by a group of British travellers on your birthday (I know it’s a lot, but bear with me). The next year swings around, and everyone insists that you celebrate your birthday while wearing the union jack. Doesn’t sound very pleasant, does it? 

Now, I do want to say that I completely understand the debate from an immigrant’s perspective. I was driving to the train station this morning, and hanging out the front of a Greek restaurant was one the largest Australian flags I’ve ever seen - I’m talking bigger than the one on the harbour bridge. Now, at first, it made me a bit unsettled, but thinking about it further, I do suppose I understand this perspective. For people who have come to this country, searching for a better life, fleeing violence, conflict or financial turmoil, I do fully understand the desire to celebrate the country you now proudly call home. 

I love this country; it has been my home for all 27 years of my life, and my connection to it extends all the way back to early convict settlement. I also want to celebrate it; I want a day off, I want to hang at the beach with my friends, drinking copious amounts of alcohol, but we can do that on another day- perhaps one that wasn’t recognised as a day of mourning prior to it being recognised as a public holiday? 

I think Jan 26 should be treated in the same way we treat ANZAC Day - no, not getting drunk at 8 am and gambling all day- but instead, we wake up early, and as a community, we commemorate the loss from a war we didn’t fight in. Then we chose another day, a national day that has no overpowering significance to another group of people, where we can celebrate all it means to live in this beautiful country.

So am I ashamed to admit that I was once that little girl in the Australia Day bikini and mismatched thongs? No… instead I’m proud to say that I have learnt and grown from the mistakes I’ve made in the past and move forward, always looking for new opportunities to be better.

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