Indigenous Western Australians have criticised a move by the Returned Services League of Western Australia (RSLWA) to not include a Welcome to Country at the State’s main ANZAC Day dawn service.
The move is a continuation of last year’s decision to outright ban the Aboriginal flag and the Welcome to Country, only for RSLWA to backflip and withdraw the policy days later due to public backlash.
Prior to ANZAC Day services being cancelled due to a three-day COVID-19 lockdown in WA’s Perth and Peel regions, RSLWA again chose to forgo the Welcome this year and was instead encouraging sub-branches to do an Acknowledgement of Country.
“Acknowledgement of Country at the commencement of commemoration activities is strongly encouraged by RSLWA State Branch,” RSLWA said in a statement.
“The organisation will continue the practice of listening to, and liaising with, its Indigenous members, all Indigenous Veterans and the wider community of Western Australia.
“For the Acknowledgement of Country, RSLWA’s policy is to first offer the opportunity to make such Acknowledgement by an Indigenous Veteran. Otherwise, Acknowledgment would be made by another appropriate person of RSLWA.”
Noongar Cultural Advisor at Curtin University, Ingrid Cumming, told NIT that a Welcome to Country should be included as the ANZAC Day dawn service is “a ceremony for all Australians”.
“I think given the long history of Aboriginal and Torres Strat Islander people who have served for Australia and I think in 2021, when we know [about] things like cultural protocols, Welcome to Country should be included,” she said.
“I’m confused as to why they think it’s not relevant.”
RSLWA Vice President Duncan Anderson told ABC Radio Perth the decision was made due to the “logistical burden” on event organisers.
“The logistical burden of ANZAC Day in a lot of smaller sub-branches is immense,” he said.
“A Welcome to Country, to do that properly, you should have a local Indigenous Elder come along, and so it was just another thing, another step, that may not have been achievable.”
However, Cumming feels this is a major cop-out from RSLWA.
“Our armed services epitomise the talent of strategy and making things work, and some of them are in challenging and difficult environments in the world,” she said.
“I would think they have the skillset to be able to strategise and make it work for an important event like this.”
Anderson also said the having Acknowledgements of Country was the “middle ground” for feedback RSLWA had received from Indigenous veterans.
Lead candidate for the Greens Senate ticket and a proud Noongar/Yamatji woman, Dorinda Cox said only encouraging an Acknowledgement “falls very, very short” of validating and respecting First Nations people in WA.
“I think that they are trying to, for whatever reason, whitewash history. And I think that it’s a very conservative approach to actually owning Australia’s history and owning the place and recognising the place of First Nations people in this country,” she said.
“In WA we are very, very behind the times at a national level with positioning the importance of that for healing this nation.”
Cox believes Anderson’s comments are an excuse for RSLWA to not acknowledge the discrimination that Indigenous diggers faced when returning home from wars.
“We’re asking veterans to come out in numbers, and we do it every year on ANZAC Day for the dawn service … but then it’s too logistically a burden to ask one person to provide a Welcome? It just doesn’t make sense,” Cox said.
“I think it’s a cop-out, I think it’s a way for them to not acknowledge that Blak diggers were systemically discriminated against when they came back [from warzones].”
“We need people to come out in numbers and particularly our First Nations soldiers to come out in numbers and do that truth-telling and do that work. The racism is still there at the heart of these events.”
While ANZAC Day services have been cancelled in WA two years in a row now, RSLWA continues to stand by its controversial policies.
“As the State representative of servicemen and women in WA, is their decision representative of their membership? And if not, why are they making this decision?” asked Cumming.
RSLWA declined to comment.
By Hannah Cross