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Our unfinished business with the First Nations


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.

Aboriginal flagIt 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 colours of red, black and yellow encourage us to recognise the land and our First Nations peoples, and to live in hope.


Brian McCoyFr Brian McCoy SJ is the head of the Australian Jesuits.

Topic tags: Fr Brian McCoy SJ, First Australians, Aboriginal, Australia Day



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Existing comments

I agree that a date other than 26th January should be chosen for 'Australia Day'. Yesterday, I was reading Alex Miller's description of his book "Journey to the Stone Country": "Journey to the Stone Country also came to me through friendships; and, once again, it was a book about people and places that are dear to me. It is a reflection of my own realities and the realities of these friends heightened, simplified and transmuted into the organic whole of story. My own displacement from one side of the world to the other, my loss of culture and home, is dealt with silently in my empathy with the displacement and dispossession experienced by the book's principal characters, black and white." The referendum is so important to this nation.

Pam | 27 January 2016  

Just maybe this should be our flag and maybe the song ''we are one, we are many'' should be our anthem. then how much pride would we feel. God bless our Jesuits and God bless Australia. Let us stand proud of our first peoples and our own Christian God

PHIL | 28 January 2016  

I'll look for the flag next time I cross the bridge. And it is good that St.Aloysius has followed through with its support for Jarjum School for Aboriginal children in Redfern. Denis Quinn

Denis Quinn | 29 January 2016  

I learnt of this superb gesture at my cousin Tony's funeral last week. How blessed we are for his life.

Marjorie Edwards | 05 March 2018  

This is an excellent contribution, not only very insightful born out of direct experience but also compassionate. I am so grateful that there are people like Brian McCoy.

Brian Stacey | 23 November 2021  

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