MELBOURNE (Reuters) – Australia Day celebrations on Sunday saw thousands of people flock to beaches and music festivals, but festivities were clouded by the tragedy of bushfires which have killed 33 and destroyed hundreds of homes.
Thousands also rallied in support of indigenous Australians who regard Australia Day, the day which marks the start of white settlement, as “Invasion Day”.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Australia Day was a time to acknowledge the country’s stories, both ancient and recent.
“And, as we have been reminded especially in these most recent times, stories of drought, bushfires, adapting to the many challenges that come with living in this great continent,” Morrison said in his Australia Day address.
“But we would have it no other way as Australians because we love this land, its beauty and, yes, we know its terror, in all of its riches and all of its blessings, and we are a free, diverse and accepting people.”
Australia Day marks the anniversary of the 1788 arrival of the “First Fleet” of British ships at Sydney Cove. Britain claimed Australia, declaring it an empty land, but indigenous Australians trace their lineage back 50,000 years.
Indigenous Australians want Australia Day abolished, but the prime minister has promised to defend the holiday’s date.
Australia’s 700,000 or so indigenous people track near the bottom of its 25 million citizens in almost every economic and social indicator.
Protesters rallied on Sunday carrying red, black and yellow indigenous flags and signs “No Pride in Genocide”.
“January 26 is a bad day, a hurtful day, but we come here for solidarity,” Bundjalung elder Gwen Williams-Heckling told Australian Broadcasting Corp. “We need a new day because we can never celebrate the day of invasion.”
Fires across Australia’s bushland have scorched an area nearly the size of Greece since early October, killing 33 people, including several firefighters and volunteers, and millions of animals.
Morrison announced The National Emergency Medal will be awarded to emergency responders battling the 2019-20 bushfires.
“The response to the bushfire situation has been unprecedented with thousands of volunteer and paid responders working around the clock, day and night, week after week to protect property and save lives,” he said, acknowledging some firefighters were battling blazes on Australia Day.
Rao Asim, a Pakistani who became an Australian citizen on Sunday with his wife Hina and their two children, said during the broadcast ceremony that his family had changed their plans on how to celebrate.
“We had big (party) plans,” he said. “But we have decided as a family to donate the money for the bushfires relief effort.”
Reporting by Lidia Kelly; Editing by Michael Perry