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Our country is hurting


A few years ago, in a remote northern Aboriginal community, a friend of mine painted on the walls of his house:  Black Lives Matter – I Can’t Breathe. They were written in black, large print on his yellow-painted brick house.  They were simple and stark in their message.

I have known this friend for many years. These simple words captured something of his feeling at the time, a feeling of anger and hurt at what he saw around him, what he had experienced and witnessed in life as an Aboriginal person. It was triggered by what he saw in America but it expressed what had been gradually building up within him. He wanted the world to hear his anger and pain but more than that. He wanted the world to hear his hope, much more than simply a protest. It was a desire for something better for his family and people. It was a cry for new life. 

Our country is hurting at the moment. Pain can be felt across the whole country, affecting many Australians, not just First Nations people. In cities, towns and remote communities. The referendum has caused an old and deep wound to be re-opened and pain to re-surface. 

This pain cries out from the core of being Australian. It affects us all, not just First Nations people. In recent weeks we have heard many voices, especially First Nations’ voices, expressing their preference for a yes or no vote. Some have been measured, reflecting on the implications whichever way the result finally goes. Others have been more angry, dismissive of other opinions. Sadly, some have promoted ignorance and fear. 

What is this pain? For some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people it is the weight of history, their personal experience of discrimination, the endless funerals and litany of tragic events, violence and suicide. And much more. For other Australians it can be witnessing the brokenness of peoples’ lives, the addictions and high imprisonment rates. And then there is the pain of those of us who move between both cultures. We feel our inability to adequately support Aboriginal and Torres Strait leaders and the burdens that many carry.  We feel helpless to respond to what comes across as careless and negative comments by other Australians, the point scoring by politicians and an underlying racism that can be expressed in so many ways.

There is also a collective pain, one which reveals we as a nation cannot yet find a common ground of truth telling, hope and healing. We struggle to agree on the truth of our past and how it affects the present. We live unreconciled and yet there are clear and growing signs that we wish to be more united as one people: The First Australians and those of us who came later. Convicts, settlers, migrants and refugees.

This is not a unique pain that applies just to Australia. It is very similar to what many Indigenous people across the world have faced over centuries and some continue to face. To ignore or deny that pain is to avoid facing the brutal and generational effects of colonisation and how it has particularly affected the First Nations people of this land where simply being Indigenous and people of colour were key ingredients. This is not to say the suffering has affected all First Nations people in the same way. Shared trauma will deeply wound some more than others. Some show signs of greater resilience and others have found a path they believe they can safely navigate within the dominant culture.  Many are still looking for that path or, if on it, face many challenges every day to their health and wellbeing.


'We cannot rewrite Australian history but we can name where we stand in it now. With one word we will each make our own mark for a nation seeking the truth and healing of its soul.' 


To some of us it is a familiar pain because, if you live long enough, it regularly returns. To my surprise, however, it now seems to catch so many Australians off-guard like the pain of a new infection. And, like some physical pains, we wonder if we just have to learn to live with it and then medicate using occasional pain-killers or is it one we now wish to face together more openly and courageously. The coming vote of the referendum gives us a choice. Both choices involve pain but only one attempts to take steps to heal that deep wound.

A few weeks ago, I visited old friends in two remote Northern Territory Aboriginal communities, friends and families I have known for decades. In one community I was asked on occasions to explain what a referendum was and the context of this one. Not an easy task moving between English and, with the help of others, the principal local language. I talked about treaties the British Government had made with other Indigenous groups such as in the US, New Zealand and Canada and the background to the making of our Australian Constitution and the origin of this current referendum. At the end of one session, I was asked: ‘How come there never was a treaty here?’

The answer to this question lies in our ability to honestly face the truth about the history of this country and which distinguishes it from many similarly British-colonised countries. The generational pain that accompanies this truth will continue to arise and seek healing unless we Australians face it together and with courage and hope. This coming referendum is no magic bullet that can simply remove this colonial legacy whether one votes yes or no. But what it does do is draw a line in the sand of history and offers everyone the opportunity to stop, draw breath and explore what we as Australians want for a more inclusive and reconciled nation moving forward. It is not the referendum that is causing division. We have been divided since January 27, 1788.

Shortly after my friend had painted these words, the local police came and told him to remove them. He refused. They came back again reminding him who had built his house. And, again, he refused. He could not go back and wash away what he had written. I later asked him why he had painted these words.  He replied that he saw what was happening in America and over decades what was happening to his own people. He could identify with the experience of African Americans, especially how they were still being treated. He felt good, strong and proud in what he did.

What will we each feel on Saturday 14 October when we come to vote? And what word – yes or no – will carry our own sense of feeling good, strong and proud? We cannot rewrite Australian history but we can name where we stand in it now. With one word we will each make our own mark for a nation seeking the truth and healing of its soul. On Sunday 15 October will our First Nations people feel that their lives do matter?  I hope so.




Brian McCoy SJ is a Jesuit priest who lived amongst Indigenous people in Australia and overseas for more than fifty years.  Apart from long contact with Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people across much of north Australia he has also spent time with the Maori in New Zealand, the Anishinabe people in Canada and the Lakota Sioux in America. He completed a Doctorate (University of Melbourne) on the health of Aboriginal men, later published as Holding Men: Kanyirninpa and the Health of Aboriginal Men.

Main image: Indigenous artist William Parmbuk. (Provided)

Topic tags: Brian McCoy, Indigenous, Referendum



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Existing comments

Brian, I appreciate and respect your long-demonstrated commitment to what you and several Jesuits of mutual acquaintance consider to be a clear manifestation of solidarity in exercising the Church's "preferential option for the poor."
However, in response to your concluding question, come Saturday 14th, I imagine I'll still feel serious doubts about the efficacy of the Voice as a means of reconciliation and closing of the gap. And continuing dissatisfaction with a one-sidely negative, ideologically cast view of Australia's history since 1788 which includes the denial of any real effort or achievement on the part of settlers since to co-habit respectfully, peacefully, justly and creatively with our indigenous peoples.
Perhaps you'll pray for a conversion of heart and mind for me and others of similar disposition.

John RD | 05 October 2023  

I commend Brian for his insightful piece on 'Black lives matter; I can't breathe'. I feel sad and disillusioned over the 'No' case; I retain some residual hope that humanity and decency will prevail and the 'Yes' vote will triumph on 14th October. We need to own our past, affirm our First Nations People. The world is watching too...

Greg Latemore | 05 October 2023  

This is such a poignant commentary - thank you Brian.
You mention the "truth" so much, and so necessarily. I don't think we Australians as a whole are good at telling the truth, and find it difficult to hear. The current yes/no debacle points to the unwillingness to face the past and its current effects. Blithely following the US into its wars and weaving tales about how that is supposed to keep us safe is another. We spied on one of the poorest nations in the world - Timor-Leste- for our financial gain, and refuse to admit the truth. We are silent on the plight of West Papua, as telling the truth would put us in Indonesia's bad books. The current revelations about asylum seekers show the extent of the lies that we tell, and swallow.

It is distressing to see the effects of the current lies about the referendum - people in power fling off a lie here, a half-truth there, and the process always brings fear to the surface. On Sunday a woman told me at church that she was voting No because if Yes gets up the Aborigines will cut off the hot water. That is a direct result of the insinuations, conjectures and outright lies concerning risk, division and cost that form the basis of the No campaign.

Sister Susan Connelly | 06 October 2023  

I am a baby boomer, a Fifth Generation born Australian, because of my Ancestor Settlers, who arrived here at what is now the Suburb of Glenelg in January 1839.
Because I was interested in the History of the World, I have studied and read a great deal,
not only fiction.
I always wanted to know why and or, why things are as they are?
Our schooling was very comprehensive in the 50’s and 60’s, I believe now that by World standards it was great.
However as years went by I soon learnt our Colonial history was extremely limited and biased where Australian detail was concerned and I eventually learnt the truth about the aboriginal atrocities and incarcerations.
What hurt the most was learning that children were forcibly taken from their parents and tribal land as recently as 1970.
This floored me!
I have deliberated greatly listening to the various arguments for and against for this coming Referendum and many are divisive and
not at all positive or constructive.
I want to do the correct vote that will benefit the First Generation the most as they certainly have suffered and were harshly dealt with and are suffering more so now.
I will vote yes trusting this is what the First Natin peoples want and that it will not create any further division as we are all one “ Nation - Indigenous / Settlers / Migrants and Refugee’s “

Yours Sincerely
Trevor John Bairstow

6th October 2023

Trevor Bairstow | 06 October 2023  

A compassionate article. Do you think though that there are actually no answers? That it is the fate of colonised cultures to suffer whatever indignity they must, and the colonisers to begrudge whatever ground they must give. Indigenous peoples lost everything after white settlement; language, family, land, culture. And we still chide them for not accepting white society and ‘integrating’. All the while we hold our precious culture, it’s symbols, it’s history and it’s meaning close to our own hearts. I am at a loss to make sense of any of it. But your compassion gives me some hope.

Tony Schumacher-Jones | 07 October 2023  

From reflection on earlier Kimberley experience and later attempts to stay informed about the larger Australian scene of regions, cities and suburbs I have listened to the likes of Jacinta Price and Warren Mundine.

Jacinta has her feet on the ground, Alice Springs, where she has real ‘post colonial’ awareness of local stresses (abuse of one kind and another, not overlooking Indigenous perpetrators, etc.) and she is already a voice to parliament (with the other ten or so Indigenous reps currently in Canberra).

Mundine, like Price, thinks ‘local’ and would encourage Indigenous enterprise on the ground, with a ‘post colonial’ awareness of so many differences in Indigenous experience since earliest times.

It’s already known, I think, that with raised awareness of local health, education and housing issues, the underlying humanising value in any community has to be that of useful work which is to be appreciated at family and community level; in our present referendum context, this will be in regions/cities/suburbs, or ‘on country’.

The likes of Mundine and Price are with the reps already in parliament well placed to push this. (In so doing they would have Noel Pearson’s Cape York venture to cite.)

Of course, there are those among us who are cautious about change, not always without reason. Change needs to be constructive.

There are lots of people who will vote ‘Yes’, both the thoughtful ones and who knows how many who are carried along by the vibe, not to mention the moving and shaking ‘corporates’ and ‘pseudo celebrities’ who can’t resist getting into any ‘act’ of self-satisfaction.

Yes or No, there does seem to be an entropic brake that is applied to human endeavour: execution never fully realises intention. Previous intentions to adjust our nation’s constitution seem to verify the value of modest intentions. The present ‘post colonial’ exercise to right wrongs and promote fairness needs to be just that, as we are post-colonial in the sense that our history was not frozen in time in 1770 or 1788, and susceptible to correction now in our multicultural times.

Running with the social brake to our human endeavours is the imperative to use scarce social energy wisely, to keep our feet on the ground wherever we are.

In the Kimberley there has been an Indigenous rep in State parliament for the last ten years or so, and an Indigenous senator in Canberra for a few years. With scarce energy and diverse contexts across the nation it seems to me that constitutional grandstanding is out of place. In ‘post colonial’ times of multicultural difference I think the likes of Mundine and Price are exemplifying good awareness of what our nation in its diversity needs locally at this time.

Noel McMaster | 09 October 2023  

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