Many of us recognise the importance of improving relationships between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and other Australians in making our society and community a better place. Many non-Aboriginal Australians feel uncertain about taking actions that will be meaningful, actions that will rise above tokenism. Sometimes we feel stuck and do nothing out of fear of doing something wrong.
Supporting reconciliation means working to overcome inequities between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and non-Aboriginal Australians as an individual and as part of any kind of collective.
As an individual, supporting reconciliation can look like:
Acknowledging what you don’t know and committing to learning more
How do we understand our part in Australia’s history and our future? How do we know what to do or say? Sometimes the fear of getting it wrong or not knowing can stop us from doing anything at all.
Even though we weren’t around at the start of colonisation, we are here now and we all have a part to play in creating an equal and just society for everyone. We didn’t create the situation but we are part of it now and we can do something about it.
Here are some good places to start:
Australia has always been a multicultural country. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australia is made up of many different groups each with their own culture, language, customs and laws. Before colonisation there were around 250 Aboriginal languages with distinct vocabulary and complex grammar. Today 145 are still spoken and only 18 remain strong.
Language is an expression of identity; it tells us who we are and where we came from. It is central to understanding and celebrating culture. There are many great projects across Australia aimed at documenting and revitalising these languages. Get to know your local language(s) of the Traditional Custodians of the land on which you live, work or play or visit the Victorian Aboriginal Corporation for Languages
What is “Country”? Country is more than an area of land or group of features. It is central to the wellbeing and identity of Aboriginal people and encompasses their relationship with ancestral lands and water. Country is often spoken of as a person.
To learn whose Country you live on or are visiting click here. Acknowledge and pay your respects.
Learn some of the language from the Country you are on, so you too can greet and talk to Country.
Committing to listening and learning about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories, experiences and perspectives, even when it is hard, uncomfortable, and even painful for you personally.
Learn the facts.
Understand different perspectives.
A united, reconciled Australia would be a place where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander rights, cultures and histories are celebrated as part of a shared national identity. One way to demonstrate this commitment is forming a treaty or treaties with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
Treaties are legally binding agreements between sovereign nations. In the context of colonisation, treaties have created formal relationships between the colonising and colonised peoples and have outlined each party’s legal rights. Canada, the United States of America and New Zealand are states where the colonising nation has formed a treaty with their First Nations peoples.
Australia has never formed a treaty with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The lack of a treaty suggests an ongoing denial of the sovereignty of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, cutting to the heart of the unresolved wound that created the Australia we live in today.
In Australia, a treaty might, among other benefits:
- provide symbolic recognition of Indigenous sovereignty and prior occupation; and
- redefine and restructure the relationship between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and the wider Australian community.
The last Reconciliation Australia Reconciliation barometer report showed us that in the general community, 53% (up from 47% in 2018) supported a treaty. This statistic is reflected in movements among Victorian, Queensland and Northern Territory governments to form treaties with the First Nations peoples in their respective states. Victoria is at the forefront of progress, with a First Peoples’ Assembly – a representative group of Victoria’s First Nations people – being established recently.
The Victorian First Peoples’ Assembly is setting up a Self-Determination Fund to support Aboriginal groups to negotiate Treaties on equal standing with the Victorian government. Keep an eye on this page to see how you can help support this work: https://www.firstpeoplesvic.org/our-work/self-determination-fund/
If you’d like to learn more about Treaty, the SBS short documentary series, ‘Treaty’ provides views on the topic from four young Aboriginal filmmakers. https://www.sbs.com.au/ondemand/program/treaty
Educating yourself about our true history and what Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have experienced.
An important part of reconciliation is truth telling and learning about our true and shared histories. Reconciliation Australia’s State of Reconciliation in Australia Report (2016) identifies “historical acceptance” as one of the five dimensions of reconciliation and recognises that “widespread acceptance of our nation’s history and agreement that the wrongs of the past will never be repeated” is a requirement for a reconciled Australia.
In mid-May 2021 the Victorian Government established the Yoo-rrook Justice Commission as the nation’s first truth-telling process and announced its five commissioners. The Commission Chair and Wergaia/Wamba Wamba elder Professor Eleanor said “I expect there will be stories that we will want to hear, want to know about because we’re talking about the history of this state, what happened and what was done and why we do what we say and do what we do now about our rights, our wishes and our aspiration for keeping land for our people in perpetuity, keeping our culture, keeping our language.”
Why establish a truth-telling process and how is it relevant to us? Reconciliation Australia believes that historical acceptance is the key to reconciliation in Australia and historical acceptance cannot occur without truth-telling. For society, truth-telling enables us to engage with the difficult issues caused by past wrongs. For the individual, it is an opportunity to tell their story and get official recognition of their suffering.
There are many examples of Truth-telling processes around the world. Some of the most well-known are the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the Waitangi Tribunal of New Zealand and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. The Canadian Commission, exploring the legacy of the Indian Residential Schools system, has particular resonance for Australia and our Stolen Generations.
What action can we take at a personal level? One step we can take is to educate ourselves to the truths about where we live. When and how did the first Europeans arrive in your area? What happened to the people already living there at that time? What impacts did the Acts for the Protection of Aborigines of 1869 and 1876 have? Spend time looking through this collaboration between Guardian Australia and University of Newcastle’s colonial frontier massacre research team – “The Killing Times” – but remember that single deaths will not appear. What missions were people from your area moved to? What happened to them when the missions closed early last century?
While learning the truth about the past is painful and confronting, it is an unavoidable step toward building the type of understanding that can allow connections to be made and for healing to take place.
For information and commentary on the Yoo-rrook Justice Commission the links below are another starting point:
The Conversation website has thoughts on the efficacy of truth and justice commissions with the take-away that they are a necessary process, not an end-point: https://theconversation.com/do-truth-and-reconciliation-commissions-heal-divided-nations-109925
Speaking up when someone says something racist and trying to do so in a way that helps them understand why it was racist and how they can change their behaviour. It can be challenging to unlearn the racist language and narratives that have saturated Australian language and ideas since colonisation.
Racism has long-lasting damaging effects on lives and livelihoods no matter what the context. Eliminating racism is a crucial part of improving race relations, one of the pillars of reconciliation. While most of us would know what to do in the real world, it is harder to know how to react to racist behaviour online. This guide to being an active bystander when witnessing racism on the internet or in the real world might help you to decide how to act.
Listening to, and accepting, challenging or negative feedback on your own behaviour and words, even if you didn’t mean to say something that can be perceived as racist or culturally insensitive/unsafe.