Vanuatu Independence Day Celebration

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There were emotional scenes today as the South Sea Islander community celebrated formal ties being forged between Bundaberg and Luganville. 

Community members also welcomed the “healing” of Mayor Jack Dempsey’s apology for the past practice of “blackbirding” which saw indentured labour from Pacific islands forced to work in the region’s canefields.

The two historic moments were observed on Vanuatu Independence Day in Buss Park, including a choir of seasonal workers singing the Vanuatu Anthem. 

The establishment of a Sister City agreement is the first between Australia and Vanuatu.

In his speech, Mayor Dempsey said the objectives were to promote exchanges that enhance tourism, cultural understanding, farming, seasonal labour and education. 

“It’s my vision that Bundaberg will become the gateway to Australia for people from Luganville, all of Santo and other islands in the northern part of Vanuatu,” he said. 

“We know how important seasonal workers are to both our economies.

“When people come to Bundaberg from the Islands, they provide essential labour on our farms. When they return, they have funds to support their families and invest in businesses that create jobs. 

“It’s our mission and responsibility to make sure that Ni-Vanuatu are always welcome and looked after, like we care for our own sons and daughters.” 

Earlier this week, Luganville Lord Mayor Peter Patty said: “Our two cities are united by many similarities, including of course the close personal connection of ni-Vanuatu citizens living in Australia.” 

“Through this MOU we hope to facilitate technical assistance where possible in fields where expertise can be shared, such as infrastructure, waste management, water, education and agriculture,” he said. 

Mayor Dempsey reflected it was 41 years since the New Hebrides became the independent nation of Vanuatu, ending decades of French and British rule. 

“Today I wish to extend a sincere apology on behalf of the Bundaberg Region community for the abuse which occurred in ‘blackbirding’ people from Vanuatu and other Pacific Islands to work in the Queensland sugarcane industry,” he said. 

Mayor Dempsey said the region’s sugarcane industry was built on the backs of Pacific Island labour, along with infrastructure such as rock walls, which are still visible today. 

“Although slavery was abolished in the British Empire at the time, the practice of forcing indentured labour into Queensland canefields was equivalent to slavery and abhorrent,” he said. 

“I sincerely regret the pain caused to families and communities in Vanuatu and other Island nations. Saying sorry is necessary for healing and to move forward in friendship. 

“Our industries today rely on voluntary seasonal labour. This must always be a relationship based on respect, courtesy, fairness and trust.”

Mayor Dempsey said the future looks bright for Bundaberg and Luganville to grow together in friendship, especially after Covid travel restrictions are eased. 

During the ceremony Jane and Geoffrey Smith spoke on behalf of the Vanuatu Government, High Commissioner, His Excellency Mr Samson Vilvil Fare. 

The pair are involved with Yumi Olgetta Wellness, which provides welfare support to seasonal workers. 

Aunty Jane, as she is known in the local community, said today’s event was “something of a dream for me”. 

“It means a lot to me,” she said. 

“The significance of today is very important,” Mr Smith added. 

“What has been done has been a historical event. 

“We remember today. Yesterday is what has happened. Tomorrow is the growth and the future of our people and of the nation.” 

Bundaberg South Sea Islanders Heritage Association President Coral Walker said, being born in Bundaberg and with a strong family connection to the area, that the event was a first for the area. 

“Today is so exciting,” Ms Walker said. 

“I’m hoping that it happens in Gladstone, Rockhampton, Townsville all of the other places I am familiar with where the South Sea Islanders have a big contingent . 

“It’s great to see that Bundaberg has taken that initiative to kind of kick it all off to get the ball rolling.” 

Queensland United Australian South Sea Islander Council Inc President Clacy Fatnowna and Treasurer Dennis Bobongie travelled from Brisbane to attend the flag raising ceremony. 

“It’s a great honour to be part of the celebration which is historic,” Mr Bobongie said. 

“It reminds us of past histories where we are both descendants from. 

“Our forefathers were part of the original people who came to work in the sugar plantations. 

“It’s an historic thing to have this connection.”