For close to 30 years, Australians have been asked to celebrate January 26 as Australia Day. But for many, it's a day that’s marked by terror, trauma, genocide and pain. On this day in 1788, Captain Arthur Phillip drove the British flag into the land at Warrane (Sydney Cove), marking the beginning of colonisation that’s marred our country, the effects of which are still undeniably felt today.
For Kaytetye woman and the CEO and Founder of First Nations not-for-profit Common Ground Rona Glynn-McDonald, this annual public holiday resurfaces generational pain, but she holds hope for the future.
“I think for a lot of Blackfullas, it's exhausting that these conversations continue. But I also think that we're seeing a really big movement around January 26 and that is from the labour and the energy and wisdom that First Nations people have been sharing,” Glynn-McDonald shares with Refinery29 Australia.
“But I think when we look [to] the future… young people are seeing the hurt and the ongoing oppression that continues for First Nations communities and recognise that this isn't a day that we can celebrate.”
Glynn-McDonald grew up on Arrernte Country (the Central Desert) in Mpartnwe (Alice Springs) and has spent the last six years splitting her time between there and Naarm (Melbourne). With a background in economics, she’s keenly invested in the intersections of storytelling, narrative change, and economics — and most recently, music production.
Storytelling has been the consistent dominator between her purpose and passions. When Glynn-McDonald was 17 and new to Melbourne, seeing the lack of Indigenous history that non-Indigenous people had been exposed to, propelled her to do something about it.
“I was at uni with young people that had been to the best schools in Australia, and they weren't centring First Nations voices, perspectives, or knowledge despite living on First Nations land," she says. "That's really what drove me to start Common Ground. We work across Australia with First Nations community to embed our knowledge across different systems, and work on cultural storytelling projects that can strengthen our cultures for future generations and keep those intergenerational transfers of knowledge strong, as they have been since time immemorial."
From a small collection of online articles and a social media page in 2018, to a fully-fledged organisation with a team in 2022, Common Ground has continued to grow into a resource that’s vital for finding the common ground between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.
The significance of January 26
“I think it's really important to recognise that this particular day was a day of mourning well before it became a public holiday,” says Glynn-McDonald. "It's been a day of mourning for First Nations communities officially since 1938, and it wasn't actually until 1994 that it was named a national holiday.
"As a tradition, [it’s] been around for a short amount of time, especially when you consider the traditions that First Nations communities have been holding for at least 65,000 years. That's something to celebrate, not the beers and barbecues that people might be having on this day.”
How can you be a better ally on January 26?
Glynn-McDonald wants allies to sit with the discomfort that can arise when engaging in conversations around January 26. “It's a really important moment where we can embed truth-telling in our lives, whether it's in having conversations with our family or friends, or with our workplaces [or on] on social media — and centring and amplifying First Nations voices in those conversations,” she explains.
“It's also being ok with the uncomfortable conversations that happen when you're talking to your uncle or your parents or another young person, and really creating an opportunity from this day to talk about truth and to talk about this historical dispossession and oppression of First Nations communities.”
For allies, I think it's really important to recognise that this is one day in the year. But that solidarity and allyship have to be active, and it has to continue, 24/7, 365 days of the year.
For physical acts of allyship, Glynn-McDonald points first to protests. “If you can, attending an Invasion Day protest in person, or the virtual events that are being held across the country, is such an amazing way to hear from First Nations voices and learn from the organisers and the staunch activists.”
She also asks allies to reflect on how we’re spending the public holiday. "Given that so many First Nations people don't celebrate the public holiday, as an ally, you can actually also opt to not celebrate,” she says.
Glynn-McDonald suggests talking to your employer about working on the public holiday, in solidarity with First Nations peoples, or for those entitled to public holiday rates, donating the extra wages to First Nations organisations or projects and 'paying the rent'.
“There are really simple ways that you can do more than just sharing something on social media and actively shift the way that you may be celebrating or standing in solidarity with First Nations people.”
How can you strengthen your solidarity and allyship all year round?
When we only think about First Nations people on January 26 and reduce their trauma and lived experience to a single day, we fail to recognise the extent of the systemic oppression they face every day. Well-meaning support can quickly turn performative if actions aren’t put behind good intentions.
“For allies, I think it's really important to recognise that this is one day in the year, and it's a day that you can show up in solidarity. But that solidarity and allyship have to be active, and it has to continue, 24/7, 365 days of the year,” Glynn-McDonald says.
“It’s so important to think about how you continue to listen to First Nations people all year round from different contexts with different intersectional identities and, and do this in a deep and humble way without an agenda.”