SYDNEY, Jan 26 (Reuters) – Thousands of Australians marked the country’s National Day celebrations on Thursday with rallies in support of indigenous peoples, many of them describing the anniversary of the day a British navy ship docked in 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 carried Aboriginal flags and an Aboriginal smoking ceremony took place.
Similar protests were held in other Australian state capitals, including 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.
“All of us will recognize the unique privilege of sharing this continent with the world’s oldest continuous culture,” Albanese said.
While it was a “difficult day” for Indigenous Australians, there were no plans to change the holiday date, he said.
Market research firm Roy Morgan’s annual poll released this week found almost two-thirds of Australians said January 26 should be regarded as “Australia Day”, unchanged from a year ago. The rest believe it is “Invasion Day”.
Amid the debate, some companies have embraced flexibility around holiday observance. Australia’s largest telecommunications company, Telstra Corp Ltd (TLS.AX)This year it has given its employees the option to work on January 26 and take another day off instead.
“For many First Nations people, Australia Day … marks a turning point in which lives were lost, culture devalued and connections between people and places destroyed,” Telstra CEO Vicky Brady wrote on LinkedIn.
Many of Australia’s 880,000 or so Aboriginal people out of a population of 25 million lag behind others in economic and social indicators the government calls “Ingrained inequality“.
This year’s holiday comes as Albanese’s centre-left Labor government plans to hold a referendum on recognizing indigenous peoples in the constitution and consulting them on decisions that affect their lives.
With Indigenous voice emerging as a key federal political issue, the government plans to introduce legislation in March to set up a referendum later this year.
The constitution, which came into effect in January 1901 and cannot be amended without a referendum, does not refer to the indigenous people of the country.
Abbie George, one of the protestors in Sydney, said it was not a happy day for all Australians, particularly Aboriginal people.
“No one has the right to celebrate genocide,” he said.
Another protester, Vivian Macjohn, said the rally against National Day was an act of support for Aboriginal people.
“I think it’s important that we show up, we mourn and stand in solidarity with them,” he said.
Reporting by Sam McKeith and Cordelia Hsu; Editing by Kenneth Maxwell and Raju Gopalakrishnan
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