As Australia marks its first Reconciliation Week since voting no to an Indigenous Voice to Parliament, First Nations young people and advocates for change say they are still hopeful the country can heal, but that truth-telling will be key.

Fifteen-year-old Shania was stunned to learn the majority of Australians had voted no in the referendum on October 14 last year. 

Shania, 15, from Avenues College was shocked by the no vote.(BTN High/ABC News: Sharon Gordon)

Many adults in the teen’s life were voting yes and there had been lots of positive talk on social media prior to polling day.

“I was just really shocked, because I would have thought over the past years, Australia [was] being a bit more open-minded to this stuff,” Shania said.

“It makes me feel really small as a person, because that’s … my whole person, being an Aboriginal person.

“For people to say, ‘I’m glad they don’t have a voice in parliament’, in a country that we were in first — it just feels horrible.”

Every state and territory in Australia voted no in the referendum, with the exception of the Australian Capital Territory.

Shania said it was an eye-opening experience.

“I know how racist people can be … [but] I had hoped that there was going to be at least one state voting [yes],” Shania said.

“So, when I saw that it didn’t, it just really put things into perspective again.”

Some Indigenous people found the referendum debate confronting and hurtful.(ABC News: Danielle Bonica)

Taleiah, 17, agreed the period before and after the referendum was difficult. 

“It was a very scary time because people weren’t really holding back on their opinions, which I really didn’t expect,” Taleiah said.

Taleiah and Shania weren’t alone in feeling isolated around the time of the referendum, and in the months leading up to it.

13YARN, a national crisis support line for First Nations peoples, experienced a 108 per cent increase in callers reporting abuse, racism and trauma between March and June of last year, as advocates for both sides ramped up their promotional campaigns.

13YARN national manager Marjorie Anderson said the Voice debate was so nasty, “it almost gave permission for people to be openly racist”.

Is reconciliation still possible?

Each year, Reconciliation Week begins on May 27, the date of the 1967 referendum — when more than 90 per cent of Australians voted to remove references in the constitution that discriminated against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples — and concludes on June 3, when the historic Marbo native title decision was handed down in 1992.

This year’s theme is “now more than ever”, referencing the need to continue the work of reconciliation despite the no vote.

But has the referendum damaged Australia’s chances of meaningful reconciliation?

SA Attorney-General and Minister for Aboriginal Affairs Kyam Maher campaigned for a yes vote.(ABC News: Che Chorley)

South Australia’s Minister for Aboriginal Affairs and the state’s first Indigenous attorney-general, Kyam Maher, said the referendum result was challenging for many First Nations peoples.

“I know quite a few Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who have felt quite hurt and disappointed with the no vote, and quite understandably are taking it personally as a rejection of who we are and our culture,” he said.

“But I think a lot of people recognise that the process of reconciliation [and] progress in Aboriginal affairs isn’t a straight line — it sort of takes deviations to the side and steps backward sometimes.”

While the referendum result was painful for some, not all Indigenous Australians wanted a Voice to Parliament.

Some supporters of the “progressive no” campaign argued a Voice to Parliament advisory body would not have enough autonomy, and some advocated strongly for a treaty instead.

Coalition Indigenous Affairs spokeswoman Jacinta Nampijinpa Price speaks after the Voice referendum.(AAP: Jono Searle)

Shadow Minister for Indigenous Australians Senator Jacinta Nampijinpa Price also actively campaigned for a no vote.

After the referendum, Senator Price said she was pleased with the outcome, and that Australia now had “fertile ground to move forward, to continue to call for common-sense approaches”.

Not ‘a vote against Aboriginal people’

Mr Maher — who supported the Yes vote — said the referendum result was likely the product of Australian voters’ reluctance to tinker with the Australian Constitution, which provides the basic rules for the government of Australia.

Last year’s referendum asked Australians to vote on whether to alter the constitution, to recognise the First Peoples of Australia by establishing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice.

Every jurisdiction but the ACT returned a no vote in the Voice referendum.(ABC News: Andrew O’Connor)

“We don’t, as Australians, vote very often to change our constitution, regardless of how meritorious the question may seem,” Mr Maher said.

“There’s been something like 45 different questions asked at referendums to change the constitution — and I think only a handful, maybe six or seven, have ever been successful.

“This wasn’t really a vote against Aboriginal people, [or] against Aboriginal culture. It was more than anything, a reluctance to change our constitution. We just don’t do that in Australia very often.”

Shania is proud that people are still fighting for Indigenous rights despite the no vote.(BTN High)

Despite being disappointed by the referendum result, Shania still has hope for change in the future.

“Even if the referendum said no, people are … still fighting for it. And it’s good because I love to see it — it’s beautiful,” Shania said.

Malakai, 14, from Kaurna Plains School, hopes a future referendum will yield a different result.(BTN High/ABC News: Sharon Gordon)

Fourteen-year-old Malakai also hopes change will come in a future referendum.

“We should just keep on moving forward and wait until the next referendum to try to change our decision,” Malakai said.

Reconciliation in the future

In terms of moving reconciliation in Australia forward after the no vote, Mr Maher said it was important for Australia to come to terms with its history — something we “haven’t done so well” at as a country.

“In the 70s, that used to be termed ‘the great Australian silence‘, that reluctance for us to talk about some of the really difficult parts of what’s happened here over the last couple of hundred years,” he said.

“The massacres that occurred during the early stages of colonisation, the Stolen Generations, forced labour and stolen wages.

“I think probably the next big step in reconciliation is … understanding and coming to terms with our shared history, that informs so much of life for so many Aboriginal people today.”

Taleiah also said non-Indigenous Australians still had much to learn about the country’s past.

“I think that the majority of Australia definitely knows that Australia does have a pretty dark past,” Taleiah said.

“But I think some Australians are quite oblivious to just how dark it really was.”

Bobby, 17, believes there isn’t just one answer to reconciliation.

“Overall, there’s just got to be a lot of action taking place in all areas,” Bobby said.

“That means schools, that means government, that means [the police], that means juvenile detention centres, that means everywhere.

“And if there’s action taking place everywhere, then all areas that need to be fixed can be fixed.”

‘6.2 million people voted yes’

Despite efforts by the federal government — as well as First Nations peoples, advocates and other levels of government — the latest Closing the Gap data shows only five out of 19 targets for Indigenous Australians are on track.

Australia’s states and territories are making their own moves towards reconciliation — including legislating for a state-based Voice to Parliament in South Australia — but Mr Maher said there was “still a long way to go” towards meaningful change for Indigenous peoples.

Nina Ross from Reconciliation Australia said despite the no vote in the federal referendum, healing between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australian was still possible.

Nina Ross says people should not forget more than six million Australians voted yes in the referendum.(Supplied: Nina Ross)

“The referendum might have been voted no, but we still are the first peoples of Australia … and the oldest culture in the world — what an amazing thing to actually be a part of as a shared history.

“I think that the negative feelings that I have are starting to move into more feelings of hope, because I do see the allyship of the people who voted yes.

“6.2 million people voted yes; 60,000 people were out campaigning for yes; and First Nations peoples are still asking the rest of Australia to continue to stand up so that they can be counted.”

Janarli, 10, from Kaurna Plains School, still wants a voice for Indigenous people.(BTN High/ABC News: Sharon Gordon)

Janarli, 10, is hopeful future referendums will give Indigenous Australians greater representation.

“The next referendum, I hope it’s a yes, so then finally us mob can finally have a voice,” Janarli said.

Tresna, 15, is also optimistic.

“There is still racism happening in Australia at the moment. But … I believe we can all come together and connect as one … I hope that happens.”