SYDNEY, Jan 26, 2023 (BSS/AFP) - Thousands protested Australia's increasingly divisive national day Thursday as the public debates whether the country's Indigenous population should be recognised within the constitution.
Australia Day on January 26 has traditionally celebrated the arrival of European settlers at Sydney Harbour in 1788, and has typically been observed with beach parties and backyard barbecues.
But in recent years, it has also become a day of national protest, with some Indigenous Australians dubbing it "Invasion Day" and the start of a cultural genocide by European colonisers.
Indigenous activist Paul Silva, speaking to a crowd of thousands at an Invasion Day rally in central Sydney, said the national holiday should be abolished.
"They invaded our lands, killing our extended families, turning our warriors into slaves," he told the crowd.
"How can this day be celebrated?"
Indigenous poet Lizzie Jarrett said Sydney was "ground zero for a genocide of First Nations people".
"You think we're angry? Wouldn't you be angry?" she asked the crowd.
Similar rallies are taking place in major cities across Australia.
The demonstrations have an added significance this year as Australia's centre-left government pushes to change the country's constitution to better recognise Indigenous Australians.
There is currently no mention of Indigenous Australians in the constitution, adopted in 1901.
They were banned from voting in some states and territories until the 1960s.
The public will vote on the change -- called the Indigenous Voice to Parliament -- in a binding referendum later this year.
It aims to give Indigenous Australians a greater say in national policy-making as they battle poorer health, lower incomes and higher barriers to education.
The Voice proposal has been politically divisive, with several conservative figures deriding it as unneeded and a waste of time.
Indigenous Australians settled in the country an estimated 65,000 years ago but have suffered widespread discrimination and oppression since the arrival of the British more than two centuries ago.
Australian historian Lyndall Ryan has estimated that more than 10,000 Indigenous people were killed in 400 separate massacres since British colonisation first began.
Of Australia's 25 million residents, about 900,000 today identify as Indigenous.
The inequalities facing the Indigenous population remain stark -- they have life expectancies years shorter than other Australians and are far more likely to die in police custody.