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Our unfinished business with the First Nations

  • 26 January 2016

Every time I cross Sydney Harbour by train heading to the North Shore — which I now do quite regularly — I look for one simple and encouraging sign. It is the Aboriginal flag that flies from the top of the Jesuits' St Aloysius' College at Milsons Point.

It was first raised on 25 January 1988, on the eve of the Australian Bicentenary. The Rector of the College, Tony Smith SJ, raised it as part of a ceremony to celebrate the final day, 200 years previously, that Aboriginal people had complete freedom to their lands and customs before the arrival of the First Fleet.

A small number of Jesuits from around the country gathered on the top floor of the college, looking out over the visiting ships and lavish preparations for the following day's Bicentenary celebrations.

The story is told that soon after the ceremony someone rang the school to inform them that someone had broken into the school and raised the Aboriginal flag.

Every year as we come to 26 January I find myself similarly divided as I was in 1988. I want to celebrate and express my gratitude for growing up and belonging to this great southern land and for the many gifts I have been fortunate to receive by being born and growing up here.

I believe that I, and my fellow Australians, continue to be so fortunate and blessed when compared with the lives of many others throughout the world.

I also know that the opportunities I have been given, and continue to receive, have come at a great price for many others.

The generational effects of colonisation are not easily or quickly overcome, nor are the attitudes that have lain embedded in our national institutions since 1788. When I see the way we treat asylum seekers and refugees I believe we have yet to know the fullness of gratitude for all we have been given.

This remains our 'unfinished business', as it is often named, with our First Nations Peoples.

There is no treaty, despite some efforts in the past to find one. There is still no formal recognition in our nation's Constitution, but there is now a growing desire to remedy this.

Whatever the result of a referendum, we will need to find some other way, other than 26 January, to celebrate what we can hold and rejoice in as one nation.

Twenty-eight years later, the Aboriginal flag still flies over St Aloysius' College. Its