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The End of Reconciliation Week, and the Significance of June 3 to First Nations People

Indigenous activist Eddie Mabo.

By Troy Brown

June 3 marks the last day of Reconciliation Week.

The reason June 3 is significant is that it is Mabo Day, the anniversary of the High Court’s ruling on June 3, 1992, in the case of Mabo and others v Queensland.

Eddie Koiki Mabo lived on Mer Island, the most eastern island in the Torres Strait, 800km north of Cairns.

He challenged the claim that Mer Island, his family’s traditional land, was owned by the Crown.

In 1981, Eddie made a speech at James Cook University in Queensland, where he explained his people’s beliefs about the ownership and inheritance of land on Mer.

A lawyer heard the speech and asked Eddie if he would like to challenge the Australian Government in the court system, to decide who the true owner of the land on Mer was, his people or the Australian Government.

And this is exactly what Eddie Mabo did.

The Mabo case was heard over ten years, starting in the Queensland Supreme Court and then to the High Court of Australia.

What happened?

The High Court ruled in Eddie Mabo’s favour.

The verdict overturned the legal fiction that Australia was “terra nullius,” or land belonging to no one.

Terra nullis was an attempt to give the British and Australian governments legitimacy to allow the dispossession of all Indigenous peoples of their land.

This was despite the fact that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples occupied the land, spoke their own languages and had their own laws and customs before the British arrived in 1788.

The Mabo decision recognised Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the traditional owners of their land.

Unfortunately, Eddie Mabo passed away of cancer on January 21, 1991, and so was not able to see the impact his court case had.

The Native Title Act

Following the Mabo decision, Australia’s Federal Parliament passed the Native Title Act 1993 which established a legal framework for native title claims throughout Australia by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Eddie Mabo was posthumously awarded the Australian Human Rights Medal, and in 2015, 23 years after the decision, he was honoured by the Sydney Observatory in a star naming ceremony, a fitting and culturally significant moment in our nation’s history.

We have such a long line of warriors like Eddie Mabo throughout our history that have fought hard for change in our country.

We have faced adversity time and time again and we have fought through it time and time again.

So, I think it’s important if we really take the time to think of how important this day is, and also be grateful that we have such a great history of fighters that were willing to march into the very heart of storms and still come out standing tall.