One year ago today, I became a citizen of Australia.
Becoming a citizen of Australia I take on responsibility for the legacy of colonisation and the obligation to work toward reconciliation. As settlers—and the vast majority of us Australians are settlers—we cannot avoid it, though many continue to deny it.
Becoming a citizen on the 26th of January—when the dominant settler colonial society of this continent celebrates its nationhood, on the anniversary of the First Fleet establishing a penal colony and beginning the use of military force and the labour of indentured servants to dispossess Indigenous nations and destroy culture—this legacy and the obligation to reconciliation are especially clear.
While I believe that the 26th of January is not a day to celebrate, I am grateful that I participated in the rite of passage of becoming a citizen on that date, and that I did it in the Inner West of Sydney, on the lands of the Wangal and Gadigal peoples of the Eora Nation, on what always was and always will be Aboriginal land.
Rights and responsibilities of citizenship
I am not a nationalist. I probably was, passively, growing up in Canada: cheering on hockey teams and other athletes at international competitions; celebrating at parades, watching fireworks, at concerts on Canada Day. Wearing the Maple Leaf or more subtle signs of my nationality—like the MEC brand—when travelling outside Canada; and acknowledging my nationality, usually to differentiate myself from Americans, when people notice my accent.
I am an immigrant to Australia. I came here in 2014, with my partner and our child, mainly because we could. (There’s a story for another day about what brought me here.) I was granted a partner visa, which gave me access to Medicare and the right to work and pay tax on my income. I applied for permanent residency, which extended those rights indefinitely. As a non-nationalist, that might have been enough, but I chose to apply for citizenship.
I became a citizen of Australia so that I could fully participate in the political processes of this country I have made my home. To be sure, I believe that everything is political (another story for another day), but when you live in an electoral democracy, you have to be a citizen to vote—and that’s one of the ways I choose to participate. (For any non Australians reading this, you should also know that voting is technically mandatory here.)
But my citizenship only grants me the rights and privileges of participation in the dominant, settler colonial society on this continent. And while the citizenship test study guide includes some mention of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples (see pages 64, 67 and 80–81 of the non-testable section of the study guide - pdf), 3.5 understated pages out of 90 makes it clear that citizenship is about the culture and institutions of settler society.
The 26th of January
Today is a contested, conflicted day on the calendar in this country. To the dominant, settler colonial society, it’s Australia Day, the national holiday on which we are meant to celebrate our identity and history, the values we share, our Commonwealth. For Indigenous Australians, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander First Nations of this part of the world, today is Invasion Day.
Unlike many (most?) nation-states around the world, the 26th of January does not commemorate the formation of our nation: it falls on the anniversary of the arrival in 1788 of the First Fleet. The ships of the First Fleet carried the soldiers, supplies, and convicts to establish a penal colony as the first European settlement on this continent, in what is today known as Sydney, New South Wales. Literally, the beginning of the colonial invasion.
While there is precedent for colonial celebrations and commemorations on the 26th of January, it was only declared a national public holiday in 1994. This is an invented tradition (like so many colonial practices), designed to gloss over or erase injustice, promote nationalism, and reinforce a modern Australian (settler) identity and history.
The colonization of Australia has been brutal and extreme. The British colonists did not acknowledge the existence of human society here, at very least not in any legal sense—they sought to make no treaty and simply presumed ownership of the land for themselves. They perpetrated many, many massacres of Aboriginal people between 1788 and at least 1928. In Tasmania, they carried out genocide, practically annihilating the Indigenous population in a protracted guerrilla war from 1820–1832. They concentrated Aboriginal communities on missions, similar to reservations and reserves of other settler colonies. They actively sought to destroy Aboriginal culture, with residential schools and the forced removals of the Stolen Generations. Racism and discrimination continue today—in well-known places like the justice system, where Aboriginal Australians are incarcerated at extreme rates, and throughout Australian society at large (<- seriously, watch this video).
As settler Australians, this legacy is ours to carry. We may not believe we’re to blame, but our citizenship—our legal and moral membership in a settler colonial community—binds us to this history and to the continuing story of oppression.
This land has not been taken without resistance and protest. Indigenous Australians have fought, protested, pursued (and won) legal action, and resisted colonisation from the beginning. The 26th of January has been an important symbolic date in that struggle as well. Days of mourning and protest have been held since at least 1938, growing in prominence with Invasion Day marches since at least the bicentennial of colonization in 1988. The Yabun Festival brings it all together in resisting invasion, celebrating survival, and continuing culture.
A growing movement has called on governments to Change the Date. Several local councils have, starting in 2017, stopped holding Australia Day celebrations—including my own local council from 2020. Some started to refuse to hold citizenship ceremonies on 26 January.
Our nationalist conservative Federal government—proponents of “offshore detention” and indefinite imprisonment of asylum seekers, deniers and delayers of the need to take urgent action to prevent climate change and catastrophic biosphere degradation—retaliated first by refusing those councils the right to hold citizenship ceremonies, then by mandating that councils must hold citizenship ceremonies on 26 January.
On the 26th of January 2020, I participated in a citizenship ceremony, to confirm my full legal membership in the Australian nation. I had wanted to avoid that date, because I support changing the date, and I recognize the pain we cause by continuing—insisting on—celebrating colonization. But in retrospect, I am grateful for how my local council designed the ceremony with respect, recognition, and inclusion. What could have been a crass nationalist ritual was transformed into a moving symbolic event for change.
A citizenship ceremony is a rite of passage, a ritual of incorporation in which immigrants are transformed, naturalised, establishing legal and political belonging in their new community. These ceremonies are sometimes rife with nationalist symbolism and rhetoric, which helps to re-establish founding myths, cultural principles and stated values. There are flags, speeches, oaths, anthems. In Australia, new citizens pledge loyalty to the country and its people, to respect one another’s rights and liberties, to uphold and obey the laws, and affirm shared democratic beliefs.
While the basic structure of the ceremony is prescribed by the federal government—a formal introduction, speeches including a welcome message from the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, the pledge, and the anthem—local councils have some latitude in managing the event. My local council, in Sydney’s Inner West, is particularly progressive, and chose to include recognition and participation of Aboriginal Australians in the ceremony—a particularly important choice given the date.
The ceremony was held in the recently opened Marrickville Public Library and Pavillion, a hybrid heritage and sustainable building. The standard packet of materials for new citizens included not only a printed pledge and the lyrics of the national anthem, but also a 20 page booklet “Understanding our local Indigenous history, culture and protocols.”
The ceremony proper began with a Welcome to Country, communicating care for country and community, and inviting us new citizens to participate, and also acknowledging the history of dispossession and attempted cultural genocide that settler Australia has perpetrated. I can’t imagine a more fitting improvement to the standard protocol, not just on the 26th of January, but for every citizenship ceremony.
Our local mayor, Darcy Byrne, gave an excellent speech (link goes to Facebook, in case you’d rather not), reflecting on the recent experience of catastrophic and climate crisis-driven bushfires which is not the end but the beginning of worse and on the long history of colonial violence, dispossession, and destruction that continues to harm Indigenous Australians today. He encouraged us to take pride in the “incredible achievement of Australian multiculturalism” of which the Inner West stands as a beacon of “harmony and mutual respect.” And he called on us to join in the healing we know is necessary, for our new country to be what we want it to be:
On this day, with our nation in crisis, and profound historical wrongs still needing redress, what Australia needs above all is to heal. […] It’s not too much to ask of each of our new citizens who takes their oath here today, to answer that call. Help us to heal your new nation.
Help us to heal the communities that have been ravaged by the disaster. Help us to heal the children who have been tormented by the terror of the fires descending upon them. Help us to heal the incalculable damage that has been done to our natural environment, to our animals and plants and insects. Help us to heal the divides between the city and the bush that only exacerbate the shocking geographical inequities in this vast continent. Help us to heal the harm done to our planet by the reckless heating of its atmosphere.
And help us to heal the antagonisms that have hindered a just settlement with the traditional owners of this land. Help us to heal the open wounds of bigotry and bias that have held this country back for too long.
We need you, and the others who come after you, to offer your helping hand to Australia, as so many migrants have done before. With your help, we need not give in to trepidation, because we will know that we Australians can overcome any obstacle together.
Please believe me when I say that no association will ever mean more to us than that.
Becoming Australian on 26 January, a ritual of communion in which I became a full member of settler society, I gained all the rights and privileges of citizenship. And since the COVID-19 pandemic, I have woken up every day and felt grateful for being an Australian in Australia where we have been relatively safe and healthy.
With those rights and privileges I also accepted all the responsibilities of membership in this community.
For me, the responsibilities of Australian citizenship include working for reconciliation, on the 26th of January and on every day.
We settlers must respect and listen to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people on whose lands we live and work. We must hear the Uluru Statement from the Heart.
We must acknowledge the right of Indigenous peoples to a significant voice in the affairs of this nation, as the original custodians and as the carriers of the world’s oldest continuous living culture.
We must establish a new relationship between Indigenous and settler Australians and we must commit to constantly nurture and renew it. A treaty alone will not suddenly right old wrongs, end racism and injustice, and restore sustainable connection between people and country.
We must learn to care for country, to repair the relationships between humans and the land that our destructive forebears smashed and which we continue to damage.
We must work together to bring about a just and sustainable Australia, for our selves, for our descendants, and for the country which we call home.
If you made it this far down the page, thanks for reading.
Like with every post on this blog, consider this an invitation to join in thinking together, and maybe doing together. Why not get in touch with me on the Get in touch on the Fediverse to share your thoughts?