Editor’s Note: Stan Grant is an Australian journalist, author and Wiradjuri man. He is Professor of Global Affairs at Griffith University, International Affairs Analyst at the ABC and the host of ABC TV’s “Q&A.” He is a former CNN senior correspondent and his latest book, “The Queen is Dead,” will be published in May. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more CNN opinion here.
“I honour my God. I serve my Queen. I salute the flag.”
Those words began each school day for me. It was late 1960’s Australia. White Australia.
Whiteness was Australian policy. The first Act passed by the Australian parliament when it was formed in 1901, was immigration control legislation that would become known as the White Australia Policy.
So-called coloured peoples would be excluded. The policy was not formally abolished until the 1970’s.
Australia for most of its history was defiantly, proudly White.
In 1947, Immigration Minister Arthur Calwell captured the nation’s institutional racism when he disparagingly referred to Chinese people saying, “two Wongs don’t make a white.”
Whiteness is built into Australia. In 1770 a British sailor, Lieutenant (later Captain) James Cook – at the height of the “age of discovery” – claimed this continent for the Crown.
The rights of my people were extinguished. We were rendered British subjects.
It continues today. That’s what the coronation of King Charles III will mean for so many First Nations people: a reminder of a history of conquest.
My people – First Nations people – had been invaded, our land stolen.
Wars were fought in this land now called Australia where Aboriginal people were massacred. Martial law was declared on my people, the Wiradjuri nation, during the 1820’s in what was referred to as an “exterminating war.”
The survivors were locked away on segregated missions and reserves. Every movement was monitored, curfews imposed, civil liberties denied.
Our languages were silenced, my father saw his grandfather jailed for speaking our language to him in the main street of our hometown.
Our culture was smashed, children were forcibly removed from families in what has become known as the “stolen generations.”
Aboriginal people were commonly excluded from public places – hotels, swimming pools, cinemas.
My people faced being erased from the earth. Indeed the common phrase during colonial Australia was to “smooth the dying pillow” for a race of people on the brink of extinction.
When I was born in 1963, I – like all First Nations people – was not counted in the census. We were not included among other Australians.
That would not change until 1967.
“I honour my God. I serve my Queen. I salute the flag.”
Why would that school pledge speak to me?
I remember even as a young child feeling uncomfortable. I knew standing there alongside so many white Australian faces that I did not belong.
We were people of God. Like African Americans in the plantations of the South, in our suffering we turned to faith.
But the Queen and the flag were symbols of all that had been done to us.
After school I would return home to where that Queen and that flag deposited me.
I was born into a poor Aboriginal family. We moved from town to town as my parents looked for work.
I changed schools more than a dozen times before I was into my teens.
We lived on the fringes; on the margins. A travelling caravan of cousins, grandparents, uncles and aunts.
I was raised on stories of my peoples’ struggle. Like that of my paternal grandfather, who served his nation in World War II but returned to a country where he could not share a drink in a pub with his soldier mates.
My mother told me of how her father was tied to a tree like a dog and left all day in the blazing sun after being arrested for drinking alcohol, a crime for Aboriginal people.
Her mother – a white Australian woman – was turned away from a hospital having her first child. She was constantly harassed by police suspected of running ‘grog’ (slang for ‘alcohol’) for the blacks.
We lived in Australia, but it was clear to me that Australia was for other people.
And all of this happened under the seal of the Crown. Our country was stolen under the seal of the Crown.
Police wearing the seal of the Crown arrested our people. They took our children.
In her 70-year reign never once did Queen Elizabeth apologise to my people.
Today we remain a people unrecognised in our land. Australia is the only Commonwealth country – past or present – that has never signed treaties with Indigenous people.
Our sovereignty has never been ceded but legally it has no standing.
This year Australians will vote in a referendum to formally recognise Indigenous people in the Australian Constitution to enshrine what is known as the Voice – a representative First Nations body – to advise parliament on laws specifically designed for us.
It is seen as a bid to arrest generations of policy failure that have left Indigenous people the most impoverished and imprisoned population in Australia.
We are only roughly 3% of the Australian nation yet more than a third of prison population. We have the worst health, employment and education outcomes of any Australians.
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We die on average 10 years younger than other Australians. In some parts of the country the life expectancy of a First Nations man is less than 50 years old.
This year I have already buried one niece only 37 years old. Our people mourn at far too many funerals.
Still we hope. Even if that is a hope forged in hopelessness.
Our people have never stopped fighting for justice. For two centuries we have campaigned for our rightful place.
I was raised with “Yindyamarra,” our Wiradjuri word for respect. I respect those for whom the British royal family matters.
But forgive me if I could not mourn Queen Elizabeth.
Forgive me if I will not cheer the coronation of King Charles.