Events to mark the birth of modern Australia in 1788 are being countered by large rallies by indigenous communities. They're demanding that the Australia Day public holiday be changed so it doesn't celebrate colonialism.
Rallies have been held in several Australian cities calling for the country's national day to be abolished because it marks the anniversary of the British arrival at Sydney Cove in 1788.
Many indigenous Australians, who trace their lineage on the continent back 50,000 years, regard the Australia Day holiday as "Invasion Day."
Tens of thousands of protesters lined several streets in Sydney on Saturday, while thousands more gathered in Melbourne, Canberra and other Australian cities, saying the day should not be celebrated as it marks the theft and dispossession of indigenous people.
"Today marks the start of colonization and the start of genocide and you name it," said 17-year-old Jayden Riley, who joined the march in Sydney, wearing the colors of the Aboriginal flag.
Some campaigners called for the holiday to be changed to January 1, the day in 1901 when Australia became a nation in its own right, albeit with the British monarch as its head of state.
'Day of mourning'
But others, such as Lareesa, an Aboriginal woman who protested in Melbourne with her family, told Australian public broadcaster ABC the national day should be abolished altogether.
"No matter what day you change it to, it'll still be a day of oppression and mourning for us, so I think deleting it altogether is the way to go," she said.
Deekeala Glew, from the Bundjalung indigenous community, told ABC that December 17 would be more preferable: On this day in 1965, all indigenous people were given the right to vote.
In Melbourne, the protest was interrupted at one point by far-right protesters, until they were moved on by police.
Australia's 700,000 or so indigenous people still track near the bottom of its 25 million citizens in almost every economic and social indicator.
For most people, Australia Day is a time to celebrate the country's unity through national ceremonies, multicultural music, dancing from many parts of the world, barbecues, sport, family cricket, beaches and a few beers.
But opposition to the holiday is growing, with the number of protesters on Saturday expected to cross the 100,000 mark nationwide.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison's government, which faces a general election due in May, opposes any change to the holiday.
Some lawmakers even want to enshrine the date in legislation so that a future government cannot change it.
Even so, several councils, who normally swear in thousands of migrants as Australian citizens on Australia Day, said they didn't want to hold the ceremonies on January 26 due to local Aboriginal sensitivities.
mm/rc (DPA, Reuters)