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This Indigenous Award Winner Won’t Apologise After Refusing To Stand For The National Anthem

Joe Williams was named Wagga Wagga Citizen Of The Year, but refused to stand for the national anthem.

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A Wagga Wagga city councillor has asked the local Citizen of the Year, Wiradjuri man Joe Williams, to give his award back after Williams refused to stand for the national anthem during the Australia Day ceremony.

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"[My reaction] was one of disappointment that Joe didn’t stand for the national anthem," Paul Funnell told BuzzFeed News.

"To then accept the award and then to not stand for the national anthem, I just found completely divisive and disrespectful."

Williams, a former star NRL player and now a professional boxer, received the 2016 Citizen of the Year for his dedication to raising awareness of mental health issues and his work with young disadvantaged people.

An angry Funnell said that Williams' disregard for the anthem had soured the celebration and turned Australia Day into a "race issue".

"This is not a black versus white thing. I don’t care about what race, colour or creed the person is. Australia, if it’s to be one nation, we must work together," Funnell said.

Funnell also likened the incident to a non-Indigenous person refusing to stand for a Aboriginal welcome to country ceremony.

"At council and many public meetings we always have a welcome to country and we stand for that welcome to country," he says.

"My family have been here for generations going way back to the origins of white men coming here to Australia. This is my country as well, but out of respect and out of hope of a fully reconciled generation I always stand."

"Can you imagine the disrespect, and rightly so, if I refused to stand for a welcome to country?"

But Williams isn't backing away from his decision not to stand.

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"It’s been countless times that I haven’t stood for that song [the anthem]. It’s not a representation of me and it’s not a representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community," he said.

"I refuse to sit on my hands when it comes to Aboriginal rights. Why is it that every time an Aboriginal man or person stands up for what he or she believes in we are mugged and battered back to the corners of darkness?"

Williams, who spoke to BuzzFeed News about his mental health battles in 2015, says he had conflicting emotions accepting the award, but ultimately decided to use it as a platform to discuss mental health issues.

"This storm is not going to deter me from what I do. Let's not forget that I got awarded this award for the lives that I have saved around suicide prevention."

"I didn’t get it because I do what everyone else tells me to do. I do it because I am extremely passionate about saving people's lives."

Williams, who had publicly and candidly spoken about his battle with drugs, alcohol and depression, accepted the award in traditional body paint and cried during his speech, which he says was about unity.

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"I still recall my grandmother telling me stories of Dad and his siblings having to run to the river to hide from the government cars," he told the crowd.

"[If] Those cars catch my dad, my dad doesn't meet my mum and I don't have the chance to make an impact on many people's lives – Joe Williams isn't standing here today."

“Are we learning in our community? For the most part, yes, I believe we are. We still see and hear comments that are degrading, but we are still moving forward as a town, community and also a country,” the speech reads.

Williams says the controversy over his stance on the national anthem has highlighted the division between the Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

"All of the comments I’ve read about my not standing for the national anthem has bought all this bigotry to the surface," he said.

"Some people may say that’s a negative thing, but I say that’s a positive thing because it’s proving to a lot of people that we have a long way to go."

Allan Clarke is an Indigenous Affairs Reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Sydney.

Contact Allan Clarke at allan.clarke@buzzfeed.com.

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