What National Reconciliation Week means to me

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May 2019

By Holly Kovac

Before proceeding, I would like to acknowledge and pay my respect to the past, present and emerging Traditional Custodians and Elders of Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population. 

This week, across Australia, we celebrated National Reconciliation Week. A week where all Australians are encouraged to take a look at our shared history and explore how we can contribute to reconciliation as individuals and as a population.

What does reconciliation mean?

Reconciliation Australia defines reconciliation as about ‘strengthening relationships between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and non-indigenous peoples, for the benefit of all Australians’.

I have an Aboriginal mother and a Croatian father, so I grew up with two very different cultures behind me that supported me in different ways. My father has always been supportive of me embracing my Aboriginal heritage, even when my mother wasn’t around. Every major holiday, he would make sure my mother’s family was invited to our place or he would take us out onto country in Western Sydney to join in their celebrations. These are some of my greatest memories growing up, and I still look forward to seeing my family whenever I can. To me, this is what reconciliation means.

What are we reconciling?

There are two very significant dates that occur within Reconciliation Week; the anniversary of the 1967 Referendum and Mabo Day.

On the 27th May 1967, Australians voted to amend sections 51 and 127 of the Australian Constitution. Section 51 stated that federal laws that were designed to protect all Australians did not apply to the Aboriginal people in any state of Australia. This meant that the Commonwealth wouldn’t create laws for Indigenous Australia. Section 127 specified that ‘aboriginal natives should not be counted’ in relation to the census. When this changed, it gave Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders the right and recognition to be counted as a part of the nation. Without this referendum, Mabo Day wouldn’t exist.

Mabo Day celebrates the day when Eddie Mabo made history by taking on the high court to overturn terra nullius. Terra nullius is the Latin word for ‘land belonging to no-one.’ When Captain Cook landed in Australia in 1770, he declared the land for the Queen, even though our people were here and had been for at least 60,000 years.

While the Australian Government believed they owned the land, Eddie spoke about his belief of his peoples’ connection to the land in 1981. He was encouraged by a lawyer in the audience to take this to court. This developed into the Mabo Case. After 10 years, on the 3rd June 1992, the High Court of Australia overturned terra nullius and recognised land rights for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. This contributed to the development of the Native Title Act in 1993, which recognises the traditional rights and interest of land to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Under this Act, Indigenous people can make applications to the Federal Court to have their connection to the land recognised. This means returning to it to live, teach tradition or to have the land protected (depending on certain circumstances).

These two significant dates have given the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population a voice and had the Government face the truth about our history. The theme for reconciliation week 2019 is ‘Grounded in truth – Walk together with courage’ and, for me, this week has been about facing truth and reconnecting with my community. At the University of Sydney, I participated in a cultural healing workshop through DhabiyaanBaa Maarumali. This encouraged me to accept some truths to do with family and accept them for what has happened, since the past cannot be changed.

We can only heal together and work towards a reconciled future.