The brutality of colonising Aboriginal people in Australia needs to be recognised and spoken about, Armidale's 2021 Australia Day Ambassador Steve Widders believes.
Mr Widders took the opportunity during his address to those gathered at the invitation-only Australia Day event in the Armidale Bowling Club to start an open and honest discussion about the true history of Australia.
Welcoming everyone to the land of his ancestors, Mr Widders acknowledged his people's history and culture and welcomed everyone as fellow 'Armadalians', and fellow Australians, to what he described as 'our national day'.
"We have a big history, but we have a bright future too," he said.
Mr Widders also paid respect to the elders of those gathered and their families.
"Because you are part of the story as well," he said.
"And I pay respect to my elders as well for their resilience and sustainability - and their survival. And I'd particularly like to welcome the newcomers who are going to receive their naturalization today."
Mr Widders has lived and worked on his people's ancestral ground for most of his life and takes great pride in his identity as an Aboriginal Australian. He has a wide range of interests and is highly regarded as a supporter and advocate of many in the community, including youth, the disabled and refugees.
As a participant in a cultural exchange to India and an Ambassador Scholarship at the University of Alaska, Mr Widders has travelled extensively. However, he still regards Australia as by far the best country in the world.
"This is a ceremony that is very important because this is our national day - and we may have different ways of looking at it, and acknowledging it, and celebrating it, but the fact is we live in a free country, and we have that choice anyway," he said.
Whilst he has achieved a lot, Mr Widders feels raising his family is the most important. He says he is a man who sees family and community as the glue which makes our society relevant and cohesive. He thanked the Armidale Regional Council for recognising that Armidale was on the Anaiwan people's land and the respect shown to him as ambassador.
To set the scene at the beginning of his address, Mr Widders quoted lines from a play written by his friend Margaret Albury and performed in the Town Hall in 2015 as part of the 'Our Town' project, .
For the original inhabitants, it was a cycle of life - from fire to death, to regrowth. From desiccated yellow to succulent green, they were part of the regenerative process.
My people, the Anaiwan, lived here. They thought in cycles, in circles. Then they encountered the people who thought in straight lines. Their stories were linear - they had a beginning, a middle, and an end.
Anaiwan storytellers can tell you of the high country from where the waters came, they can speak of the low country where the waters lingered, and they can speak of the violently broken country where the waters leapt.
Mr Widders said as a fellow Australian, he was there to reflect, respect, and celebrate his national day along with his fellow Australians. Still, first, he wanted to look at the history of the country.
"1770, and then again on this day in 1788, marks the demise of Aboriginal culture in this country as the Aboriginal people knew it back in those days," he said.
"There were more than 300 different Aboriginal groups throughout Australia that effectively became involved in the brutal colonisation and imposition on Aboriginal people throughout the land.
"That is history, and unless we understand the history of our country, we can't move forward.
To understand the present, we have to understand the past.
"A lot our stories, particularly about Aboriginal history are not told, they're not acknowledged, and we need to be doing that in more ways than one."
To illustrate his point, Mr Widders reeled off the names of local places where atrocities had occurred in the past.
"Majors Road, Majors Point, Darkies Point, Poison Swamp Creek and Terrible Vale - they are all familiar places around here on Anaiwan territory where massacres were held," Mr Widders said.
"Where there was the intention of cultural genocide to wipe out the Aboriginal people.
"At Darkies Point in the New England National Park, there were colonists, part of the Armidale police, who went out there and rounded up Aboriginal people and forced them to jump.
"Majors Road at Ebor was named after after squatter Major Edward Parke who, in 1852, along with Constable Clogher of New England Police rounded up Aboriginal people and shot them.
"Poison Swamp Creek where the settlers of Bendemeer Station poisoned the creek and the milk given to Aboriginal people with cyanide - their intention was to kill."
Mr Widders said those stories are not told and to understand who we are as Australians we have to understand the history.
"If there is any hope of reconciliation in this country we need to be told the truth," he said.
"For years I've been calling, along with other Aboriginal people, for a truth-telling forum where the true history of this country can be told and that way we can move on."
He doesn't want to dwell in the past Mr Widders says, but he wants true history to be acknowledged and the stories to be told.
I wasn't there, and neither were you, and we can't be blamed for what happened, but what we have to do is acknowledge it and move on to make a better future.
Mr Widders said that mass migration had changed Australia greatly over the years, and he elaborated on industry and infrastructure across the country, which resulted from immigrant work.
"Immigrants have contributed a lot to the growth and development of our country," he said.
"Per capita, Australia is the most multicultural country on earth. There are 240 countries in the world, and we have representatives from most of them in Australia.
"We should all welcome immigrants to this country with open arms, opens hearts and open eyes because they built this country."
Mr Widders said Australia is not just the lucky country because he believes the harder you work, the luckier you get.
"We appreciate diversity, and it hasn't always been good, but over the years we've learned how to resolve differences and to understand each other and to look at ourselves as Australian citizens," he said.
"Although wherever there are differences, there is still going to be conflict, we as a nation can get around all of that.
We can be miserable and sad, despondent and angry all of our lives, or we can look at the opportunities that we have and move on.
"That's the way I feel about it because every opportunity has been given to me as an Australian and as an Aboriginal person to do that, and I've taken it.
"Although there are thousands of other Aboriginal people who may not see it that way, but we have a choice in this country, we have a choice to do that because we are not being indoctrinated by anybody.
"That's what I like, the freedom of this country, the democracy, the options and the choices that we have as Australians. "
Mr Widders didn't pull any punches when it came to highlighting the dark history of Australia, but his message was overwhelmingly positive, and his passion for his country shone through every word of his address.
"We will always have a history, and we can't change the past, but together we can change the future if we understand each other," he said.
"I like to respect that and celebrate that."
Regardless of your political background, Mr Widders believes you could not fault how the government has handled the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the fires, the droughts and the floods in recent years, and how we as Australians have responded.
"No one could fault it, even the most ardent critic cannot fault the way they've done it," he said.
"We've got good governance here. Some might not agree - look at Armidale Council - but that is the way it is - we have a right to disagree and speak our minds.
As an Australian I would not like to be anywhere else in the world today.
White Australia has a black history Mr Widders continued, and he emphasised again that we have to really understand that.
"Reconciliation only comes when we know who we are as individuals," he said.
Mr Widders then put a challenge to members of the audience to trace their family tree to discover what cultures have formed the person they are today and learn their personal story.
"Don't be surprised if you find you have Aboriginal ancestry ladies and gentlemen," he said.
"Be proud of it and don't be surprised.
"I'm an Aboriginal person, and I've got Scottish, German, Irish and English ancestry - so why can't the reverse happen?
"The story of Australia is about all of us. All of us are descended from one (or a mix of ) four groups of people: convict, immigrant, refugee or Aboriginal.
"And whatever way it is, let us appreciate where we come from, and what we can offer, to make this country that we choose to live in, a better country.
"There is a time for anger and politics, but it is not today. Today is a day for celebration."