Promoting respect, inclusion and self-determination


Harmony Week (20th – 26th March) is a celebration that recognises diversity and brings together Australians from all different backgrounds. It's about inclusiveness, respect and fostering a sense of belonging for everyone. Harmony Day (21st March) coincides with the United Nations International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, proclaimed in 1966 by the United Nations General Assembly, which called on the international community to bolster efforts to eliminate all forms of racial discrimination. 

Columban missionaries have a history and tradition of living and ministering in countries where the violence of racism and war, military dictatorships, economic and environmental injustice are prevalent. "This experience motivates us to work with others to change attitudes, actions and structures that are opposed to peace, justice and racial harmony."

Columban missionaries promote a culture of peace and active non-violence that starts within, reflects just structures, and fosters a sense of solidarity. "Our proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus challenges us to build communities of peace."

Here in Australia, since the time of colonisation, generations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have been impacted by government policies that have wrought pain and harm. Communities mourn the inter-generational hurt and trauma inflicted by forced removals, stolen wages and the denial of access to land, language, culture, and other injustices. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have long struggled for constitutional recognition and a fair place in their country. Decades of activism to right wrongs preceded the release of the Uluru Statement from the Heart in 2017. The Uluru Statement from the Heart states the unprecedented rates of incarceration and the alienation of children from their families "tell plainly the structural nature of our problem. This is the torment of our situation." 

The Uluru Dialogue group says, "The Uluru Statement from the Heart is an invitation to the Australian people from First Nations Australians. It asks Australians to walk together to build a better future by establishing a First Nations Voice to Parliament enshrined in the Constitution, and the establishment of a Makarrata Commission for the purpose of treaty making and truth-telling."

The Australian Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese, has announced the people of the nation will go to a referendum sometime in late 2023. The referendum will be a question about support for an enshrined First Nations Voice to Parliament that would inform government and parliamentary decisions. The referendum is a pivotal moment for pursuing justice, improving outcomes in all areas of life for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and renewal of the whole nation. 

Professor Tom Calma, a Kungarakan Elder and Senior Australian of the Year 2023 says the Voice and the referendum are one of the biggest issues for the nation now. He says, "when Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders get concerned, it's about governments and agencies making decisions about what they think is best. We're trying to turn that around." He says what is being asked is that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are enabled to "get involved in (their) futures as governments tend to do with non-Indigenous Australians." Professor Tom Calma has led many pivotal portfolios in social justice, human rights, anti-discrimination and reconciliation for decades. He says, "social justice has been central to all the activities I do. It's about understanding others, it's about empathy, it's about respect and it's about treating people with equality and treating people fairly." 

Aunty Pat Waria Read, a Ngadjuri Elder and Founder of the advocacy group Nunga Babies Watch in South Australia says she feels the Voice could champion needed changes when it comes to influencing services that Aboriginal people deal with. "We want them to take the Voice's direction and make departments accountable for not delivering appropriate services to our communities," she said. "From correctional services, to child protection, police, health and hospitals" (Koori Mail 22nd February). 

Events are taking place around Australia to help people understand the issues and raise awareness about the referendum. Many sectors in civil society have already confirmed their support for the First Nations Voice to Parliament. Church and other faith leaders also stand up to endorse the Uluru Statement from the Heart and advocate for a First Nations Voice to Parliament. In the lead-up to the referendum, Archbishop Mark Coleridge said in Cathnews, "Australia will struggle as a nation unless there is genuine reconciliation, including taking account of past wrongs against First Nations people that include dispossession of land, frontier wars, and the impact of past assimilation policies." St Columban's Mission Society has supported Archbishop Mark Coleridge's strong commitment to creating an Indigenous Voice to parliament.

Sr Caroline Vaitkunas RSM
Peace, Ecology and Justice Office
Columban Mission Centre, Essendon

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