“Australia is 250 years in arrears,” said organiser Tarneen Onus-Williams.
“It’s similar to renting a house and not paying. We deserve to get the money that we need, the resources to make sure we are looked after and not living in poverty.”
Ms Onus-Williams said Aboriginal rights activists such as Robbie Thorpe had been campaigning for decades for Australians to pay the rent in return for living on stolen land.
His proposal was to have people voluntarily pay a small percentage of their income to Indigenous organisations or campaigns.
Instead of donating to the WAR fund, Ms Onus-Williams said people also could give to any cause or organisation supporting Indigenous Australians.
The most important thing, she said, was that the money was paid to grassroots organisations.
“We want people show up and put some money to it,” she said.
Former Greens MP Lidia Thorpe, the first Indigenous woman elected to the Victorian Parliament, said meeting the cost of funerals was still a challenge for the Indigenous community.
“It’s a way people can contribute to reparating the first peoples of these lands,” she said.
“Our biggest priority is simply burying these people.”
Also referred to as Survival Day, January 26 is the anniversary of what many in the Indigenous community believe is the beginning of dispossession of their land through genocide.
The annual protest coincides with the official Australia Day parade in the city and has attracted counter-demonstrations from far-right groups in the past.
Last year’s rally attracted as many as 80,000 people, according to organisers.
Ms Thorpe said the pay the rent campaign was a way of giving the Indigenous community “economic independence to determine their own destiny”.
“It’s not about making people feel guilty, it’s not about questioning how Aboriginal people are going to spend it,” she said.
“If you live in someone’s house, you have to pay the rent. You’re living on stolen land, there’s never been a treaty. It’s time to pay the rent.”
Tom Cowie is a journalist at The Age covering general news.