• The Invasion Day march in Sydney from The Block in Redfern (AAP)Source: AAP
Sydney’s recent Invasion Day protest march marked a turning point in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander activism, with a new generation of young people leading the charge, says poet and activist Ken Canning/Burraga Gutya.
Ken Canning / Buraga Gutya

1 Feb 2016 - 12:34 PM  UPDATED 2 Feb 2016 - 1:23 PM

The rain lifted with perfect timing on the 26th January 2016. At 9.45am a small group had already gathered at the Block in Redfern to take part in the Invasion Day March. At first, the threat of rain looked like it might keep people at home, then in almost a blink of an eye the Block was overflowing, the air buzzing. Something special was about to take place. 

The speeches started with our older campaigners and a poem from one of our younger activists. This was to be the theme of the day; our seasoned warriors speaking then standing aside to make way for our new generation who will keep the flames of activism alive. Before we marched, Jenny Leong, the Greens Senator for Newtown gave a stirring speech of how much she had learned from being at our protest marches in the last two years.

Numbers continued to swell as we commenced our march at around 11am. By now there were more than 3000 people marching through Redfern, down Regent Street with a stop at Railway Square.

As the police tried to move us from the road, one protester grabbed the loud hailer and shouted, “No, we stay on the road, we are asserting our Sovereign rights and we will stop where we want and when we want.” There was little the police could do. It is worth noting that two of the organizers, Raul Bassi and myself were threatened with court action if a document of conditions was not signed, this included no stoppages on public roads. Organisers refused to sign this document.

After some superb dancing at railway square, we proceeded down George Street, where once more we made a stop and many people sat on the roadway. We were informed that our people at the back of the march were being harassed by the police. They were told by member of the crowd that if they did not request their officers behave, we would camp there all week if need be. Order was restored. On to Town Hall where we were met by a lone man draped in two Australian flags, after a brief encounter we took up position on the side steps of Town Hall. This was to be the continuum of strong spirit that had now enveloped the marchers.

Among our many demands on this day was to change the date of so-called Australia Day to perhaps the 1st of January, as to celebrate it on its current day was a continued insult to the killings of our peoples during the invasions of each and every Tribal nation.

By now the numbers were close to 5000 and our speakers began.

Once more all of our older campaigners weaved their experienced words, learned from decades of resistance, then all of our younger speakers came to the fore, with such stirring speeches, with each talk, the crowd was at first silent then erupted into applause. One of our young speakers, at the tender age of 18, left many people in tears. Our speakers were joined by long time Aboriginal rights advocate John Pilger, who as is his style talked of the many injustices forced upon Our Peoples.

Magic happened when a young Mother and son took the mic. The Mother spoke so true and with passion. Then this 12-year-old boy addressed the crowd and left the whole group stunned with his passion and the fire in his belly. Just as we thought it couldn’t get any better, the MC, who had almost talked himself silent, handed the microphone to his 10-year-old son. I simply cannot explain the affect these two young boys had on the crowd.

I can say, as well as our young warriors stepping up, that these two fine young Aboriginal boys did us all proud. I do not mind admitting to wiping the odd tear from my eyes.

The day was not yet at an end, we left Town Hall and a completely respectful silent march proceeded down Park Street, down Elizabeth Street and onto Australia Hall where the 1938 Day of Mourning took place. The silent march stopped pedestrians in their tracks as up to 5000 people marched silently to pay respects to our heroes of yesterday year. We ended at Australia Hall with local Elder Jenny Munro telling us the importance of this hall and the heroes who had gathered on that day in 1938. Billy McPherson then read out the speech made on the 26th January 1938 by William Ferguson, a fitting way to end such an amazing day.

For those who were there, this day will live on in your memory, it has since been hailed as the biggest march by Aboriginal peoples since 1988.

If you couldn’t attend you may have just missed out on the beginning of a new wave of activism that is sure to sweep this country. At the very least this is the beginning of a time when we use Invasion Day as a means to honour our heroes of past generations, whose bravery made some of the concessions we have fought for possible. It is time for First Nations Peoples to remember this. We have heroes and they live within our land and within our spirits.

Ken Canning/Burraga Gutya is from the Kunja Clan of the Bidjara People of South West Queensland and is a poet, playwright and a strong voice in Indigenous activism.