Aboriginal activists use Commonwealth platform to protest
GOLD COAST, Australia (AP) — An opening ceremony rich in symbolic tributes to Australia’s indigenous people was about to get under way at the Commonwealth Games.
At the same time, Aboriginal activists gathered in the shadows of the main stadium to get their message across, too.
Flanked and outnumbered by a heavy police presence, about 100 protesters carried banners with the message “Colonisation Is Not A Game” and waved black, red and yellow Aboriginal flags.
Chanting “No Justice, No Games,” they walked up to the stadium at Carrara in the rain on Wednesday night and were ushered by police, via a parking lot and soggy paddock, into a field across the road from the main entrance.
Queensland Police Deputy Commissioner Steve Gollschewski said three people were arrested for public nuisance offenses but otherwise there were no issues.
“The people were able to make their protest and get their message across,” he said. “It was a very good outcome.”
A smaller group had halted the Queen’s baton relay briefly earlier in the day blocking a road before the route was altered slightly for the final 14 baton bearers to continue.
The Australian Broadcasting Corp. quoted one of the protesters, Wayne Wharton, as saying “We are calling on the Commonwealth heads of every nation that has come here to demand (Prime Minister) Malcolm Turnbull to initiate a truth commission.”
The British established colonies in Australia in the late 1700s after declaring it “terra nullius” — owned by no one — despite the presence of Aboriginal people on the island continent for at least 50,000 years.
Today, Aboriginal people make up just three percent of the population of 24 million and are the most disadvantaged ethnic group in Australia by most measures from health, to employment and rates of imprisonment.
Activists, who have dubbed the event as the “Stolenwealth Games” aim to highlight that despite former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s national apology in 2008 to Australia’s Aboriginal people for past injustices, progress has been slow on the timetable he set for ending indigenous disadvantage.
Prince Charles, opening the 21st edition of the Commonwealth Games on behalf of his mother Queen Elizabeth II, said “sport can be a great force for good which can help create harmony between communities.
“The ancient stories told by the indigenous people of Australia remind us that even though we may be half a world away, we are all connected,” said Charles, reading from a message from the queen.
The Commonwealth Games has brought together 71 nations and territories of the Commonwealth and the opening ceremony was billed as “a celebration of unity, culture and diversity.”
The night included a traditional welcome to land by a local indigenous elder and a smoking ceremony near the end, and highlighted imagery, scenes and sounds of the ancient culture.
Wesley Enoch, an Aboriginal man who directed parts of the opening ceremony in 2006 in Melbourne and against on the Gold Coast, said it was important that the event had an “indigenous context.”
“To watch that smoking ceremony ... we all smelt the same after that. It’s also about welcoming, cleansing, to begin from a new beginning,” he said at a news conference Thursday. “The power of welcome is all throughout this ceremony. You can’t welcome athletes from all over the globe and all over the nation to this place without having proper ceremony.”
Indigenous protests also coincided with previous Commonwealth Games in Australia in 1982 at Brisbane and in 2006 in Melbourne.
Enoch said Australia had come a long way in the 12 years between hosting the games.
Asked about the protests, Enoch said it was important to be clear that local elders had invited the games organizers, athletes and people onto their land and had helped find a way to express their culture.
“We all own that story. As Australians, we own that indigenous heritage,” he said. “And that’s a big lesson to learn.”
Gold Coast 2018 chairman Peter Beattie, a former Queensland state premier and trade ambassador, said his organization had worked closely with local indigenous groups had a “philosophical commitment to indigenous reconciliation.”
Beattie said Thursday he’d meet with protesting groups if he was asked.
“We are really committed to this — it’s not just a ceremony,” he said. “If people have genuine grievances they have a right to go and out demonstrate them. We believe in people’s rights. I think it’s fair enough for them to express their view.
“Let’s be really honest, this nation doesn’t have a great record if you look at how indigenous people have been treated. Frankly, we need to reach out to people and part of that is being tolerant and understanding.”