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Some Context for “Australia Day” – How to really fix the division

By Callen Sorensen Karklis

I’m sure a great deal of the readers here are familiar with the Change the Date campaign, the rallies that our First Nations people organize in our city centres on what many Aussies celebrate as Australia Day.

As somebody who is also a First Nations person I always get asked; “Oh what’s the big deal about today?” Well I think I might put a heap of things into context here and explain why our First Nations people do what they do and are so passionate. Here are some context from my own family’s perspective for many of us: its either seen as Survival Day or Invasion Day.

Although I’m a descendant of Irish, Scots, English, Germans, Scandinavians and Latvian on other sides of the family tree, my grandmother Alice Muriel Karklis (originally Alice Muriel Martin) was a strong Quandamooka woman with some Spanish ancestry mixed in with some indications of a Spanish shipwreck in the 17th century.

My family is from North Stradbroke Island (known to others as Minjerribah or Straddie). It’s home to my ancestors; the Quandamooka people, the Nunukul, Goenpul, and Ngugi peoples who lived primarily on both Moreton and North Stradbroke Islands where they lived for tens of thousands of years.

My ancestors fished the sea life as well as cultivating the land (and honey). They had respect for the land, the lakes and the sand dunes of the island. As we all know, once the British explorers sailed through in the late 1770s and the landing of Matthew Flinders in 1803 it wasn’t long before further European contact. In the 1820s the locals helped shipwreck survivors and interactions were quite reasonable. This changed, however, with the expansion of the British Empire into what would become known as Queensland.

The British established the pilot station in 1825 at Amity and the township of Dunwich was established in 1827. The expansion of the British into local territory inevitably led to conflict culminating a new front of the Australian Frontier Wars with the Battle of Narawai (1827 – 1832) and the massacres at Moreton island (1831 – 1832), where in one case 30 – 40 were wounded or killed. A quarantine station was set up in 1850 where over time European disease caused pandemics in the local community, particularly among the First Nations peoples.

As Dunwich became a shipping stop for most colonials, explorers, and convicts around Australia for what would later become Brisbane and Redcliffe, the Dunwich Benevolent Asylum was established in 1865 to assist the poor, aged, and people with disabilities. It was around this time that Stradbroke Island’s First Nations peoples were employed – or more accurately drilled into – assisting the colonist develop and maintain infrastructure with convicts. This coincided with the establishment of the leper colony on Peel in the 1870s and later Straddie in 1892. It was the Qld Colonial Government that later legislated the Aboriginal Protection and restriction of the sale of Opium Act moving First Nations peoples to reservations. The Myora Mission was set up by the Qld Aboriginal Protection Association and Qld government as a reserve and industrial reform school and used as a means for cheap labour. All this coincided with the introduction of the White Australia policy as Australia federated, and the attitudes of the time with European superiority complex with the spread of Christianity to locals, and paternalism mixed in with the introduction of the shared European customs, foods, and drinks such as alcohol, medicine, and drugs.

Without a doubt the original locals and First Nations peoples for much of the time in the colonial era were treated as second-class citizens, though many First Nations people heeded the call to join the Europeans in fighting World War One. To add insult to injury for many First Nations people – as a means to call for patriotic duty in response to the war overseas, soldiers who were trying to by all good intent trying to raise funds for wounded relief – chose to mark the anniversary of British settlement at Botany Bay. This gained considerable traction by the 1930s as a means of celebrating Australia for most. But for our First Nations people in a White Australia nation many felt like outsiders. In context, before white man there was 250 first nations people languages in use, 120 – 145 of these remain in use and only 13 remain not endangered.

The fight for workers’ rights and Alfred Martin

It was not long until the 1910s and 20s that the labour movement spread in activism and the Australian Workers Union members staffed at the Benevolent Asylum, including many of the Indigenous staff. Many of the First Nations staff over time began to realize how badly underpaid they were with many relying on low income and rations supplied by their employer.

The AWU attempted to mediate the situation with limited success leading many of the Aboriginal staff to set up the ‘Aboriginal gang’; a bloc committed to their industrial rights. The Aboriginal gang went it alone from the AWU in 1934 to wage a 10-year campaign for basic income, joining the Aboriginal Progressive Association. It was because of men like Alfred Martin, my great great grandfather who signed petitions and strikes in the gang and won their case in 1944 to receive basic wages, 20 years before the Wave Hill walk off by the Gurindji people in the mid 1960s, making Straddie one of the first national Indigenous wage dispute cases.

The Aboriginal Progressive Association was tied with the Australian Aborigines League staging a day of mourning on Australia Day, demanding equal rights and expressing concern for Jewish people in Nazi Germany. Alfred Martin would later be remembered as chief engineer on the Kaboora steamer in Moreton Bay assisting shipwreck survivors and transporting the sick and expectant mothers. Alfred Martin is remembered by many due to Alfred Martin Way on North Stradbroke island a direct access point to Main Beach from Dunwich.

Alfred Martin signed, with several other union members whose descendants later became civil rights leaders, activists, and First Nations people politicians in the wages dispute.


The fight for equal rights and Oodgeroo

Years later the White Australia policy was still felt despite attempts by some to fight injustices. A distant relative who many internationally and throughout Australia know as Oodgeroo Noonucle ie. Kath Walker Ruska, fought for our civil rights during the right to vote campaign of 1967 for Indigenous people where she famously explained to then Prime Minister Robert Menzies that he could be jailed for giving her booze in Qld. Oodgeroo was the FCAATSI Secretary for Qld, was a communist when most parties would not allow Indigenous membership. Oodgeroo later ran for the Labor Party in Greenslopes in 1969, winning over 37.4% of the vote, and later for the Democrats in 1983, winning 6.4% of the vote. Oodgeroo was instrumental in the stop the Straddie bridge campaigns of the 1960s – 1980s. If it wasn’t for Oodgeroo the fight for national Indigenous civil rights would have been tougher, that’s for sure.

Progress and small gains

There have been some gains and progress after civil rights and union campaigns since the 20th century after MABO and the Redfern address since Paul Keating. Who could forget the compassionate apology by former Prime Minister Hon. Kevin Rudd to the Stolen Generation to our First Nations peoples? And the election of Quandamooka woman Leanne Enoch, who became the 2nd elected Indigenous person after Eric Deeral in the Country Party. Leanne became the first Qld Indigenous minister in history, representing Algester in Logan City. She held a number of portfolios from Environment, Science, Housing, Public Works, Communities, Arts, and the Digital Economy.

Crime, poverty, and the gap

Unfortunately, even in 2021 these are the facts First Nations people are still faced with despite the advances and progress: First Nations people only make up 3% of the Aussie population (that’s 670,000 out of 25 million people). In life expectancy First Nations people die at an earlier age by 10.6 years for males (69 years for Indigenous compared to 80 years), 9.5 years for females (74 compared to 83 years). First Nations people are more likely to be unemployed then non-Indigenous, 15% higher likely to be imprisoned, less likely to hold higher qualifications with higher dependence on drug and alcohol in communities. Case in point in 2012 several young Indigenous men from our community were found to be involved in a robbery and arson attack on the local post office in Dunwich.

In my family alone there has been instances where crime and mental health issues are more likely than it is for non-Indigenous people. Particularly with drugs, and alcohol problems case and point my grandmother Alice Karklis (born as Martin) was a very loving, caring grandmother married to my Latvian grandfather Gunars Karklis who worked in the sand mines on Straddie. Alice was prone to heavy drinking like most and in my Nan’s case she had to stop drinking when she developed diabetes and partial blindness. She sadly passed in her early 60s after a brain aneurysm. Then there’s my father Brett Karklis; he went to Nudgee College in Brisbane’s North and ended up working in the sand mines like most his side of the family and a product of the surfing life. My father, like most young adults, made mistakes and his was smoking pot and smashing up a phone box after a bad day. Now like most these days these are minor issues and crimes but back in the 1980s under the Joh era reigning supreme dad was handed 6 months at Boggo Rd prison. It’s safe to say this experience really screwed my father up and he did his best to make amends after this experience with his art, fighting for rights as an activist and Indigenous rights, working as a social worker for reformed kids in latter years, and as a groundskeeper. But the emotional baggage and strain on dad pushed him away from my mother and he walked on our family (my younger brother and I) for years while he was struggling with issues. It didn’t help that other Indigenous fellas bashed him up later on in a robbery causing harm to his brain leaving him dependent on cannabis use to deal with his ordeals. Now there’s heaps of stories like this in Indigenous communities all around and then some. Stories of pain, sorrow, and loss. But what’s important to note is that there is clearly a lot more we need to do as a community and society to bridge divide. We are a people literally disposed by heartbreak from bad government policy that has carried through into each of our generations.



Changing the date of Australia Day – which marks centuries of pain and sorrow – is one such way forward. Sure, for many Indigenous people the date is marked as an insult – not a day to be celebrated. Let that sink in. How would you feel if the Axis Powers celebrated a victory lap every year if they won the Second World War? The date is one thing symbolically. But more importantly, to date there is no treaty unlike in NZ where a treaty was signed with Maori peoples after European conflict and colonization. Australia has seen countless massacres, dispossession, divide in policies like the White Australia policy and then some over the years. To build a consensus and unity one way forward would be a treaty between our First Nations leaders and communities and the wider Australian public. This will help the healing process considerably. Another means would be to close the gap and continue funding programs to ensure better improved literacy rates, health standards, and less crime in Indigenous communities so that there is no divide in future. It’s very important also in this process that First Nations people’s elders are incorporated in the process of mentoring and teaching their culture, included in programs to close the gap, particularly. As Martin Luther King once said on the steps of the reflecting pool in Washington DC. “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: we hold these truths to be self – evident, that all men are created equal”. Maybe then with all these things getting a look into by most Aussies would First Nations people be able to accept a date to find common ground.

Callen (Cal) Sorensen Karklis was the national divisional coordinator of the AUWU in 2020 – 2021, Qld State Coordinator and Secretary during the COVID-19 pandemic. He has previously worked in several other unions and in media advertising. He was the Qld Fabians Secretary in 2018, involved in Crime Stoppers, and was a candidate in the local council elections in Redlands in 2020. Callen is a final year student at Griffith Uni studying Government and International Relations.


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1 comment

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  1. Bronte D G ALLAN

    Great article Callen! I agree with what you said wholeheartedly. Unfortunately, successive Governments both Federal & State have really done nothing to alleviate the pain, sorrow & disgusting “treatments” handed out to our First Nation peoples. The important issue of a new Australia day to celebrate/commemorate a more realistic date MUST be dealt with, & soon! So too should be a new Australian flag that acknowledges our First Nations people as well as the white nation as a whole. also we are in dire need of a “decent” new National Anthem, not the bloody dirge we now have! Time for change people!!

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