Dame Susan Devoy, Race Relations Commissioner

Published: Thu 28 Sep 2017 04:30 PM
Dame Susan Devoy
Race Relations Commissioner
Māori Women’s Welfare League National Hui 2017
Thursday 28th September 2017
TSB Stadium
New Plymouth
Kia ora koutou katoa
I would like to acknowledge:
Our kuia
Our kaumatua
Ngā tāngata whenua o Taranaki
League members and supporters
It’s an honour to be here with you.
These are interesting times.
As we all wait to see what our next Government will look like:
It was also national politics that brought me to Taranaki a little over a year ago.
The first time I met Andrew Judd we sat in his office and talked and talked for hours.
He told me he’d never been on a marae before he became mayor.
There were lots of tears from both us.
Andrew invited me back to Taranaki and I joined him and hundreds of others for the Parihaka Peace Walk.
It was real eye-opener.
The fact that Andrew and Howie Tamati were the only council members who walked on that peace hikoi speaks volumes about our country.
I talked to people on that walk and so many people told me they had never been to Parihaka even though they grew up only a few kilometres away.
So many people told me that in fact they’d never been on anymarae and that’s when I realised this was true for many New Zealanders, particularly older Kiwis.
I was shocked.
It all made me realise how lucky I was.
I grew up in Rotorua.
We lived in a state house, half our street were Māori, half were Pakeha and we all played together.
Dad would take me with him to marae at the weekends. He was an accountant for Ngāti Whakaue and Ngāti Pikiao and he’d bring home half a mutton or a bag of mussels and Mum would say, “Well we can’t really pay the bills with that John!”.
My Mum always worked and for a long time she was at the Post Office at Whakarewarewa so we hung out there a lot. Some weekends she would walk into the hotel on the corner and take us for a swim and pretend we were staying there. We’d say: Mum, half the staff know who you are you work down the road! But she didn’t care and we’d have a swim in the flash pool and she’d have a beer at the bar. My mum loved the kuia at Waka, they were her mates. One of my earliest memories was Guide Rangi’s tangi, I think I was 5 or 6.
And yet fast forward to 2016 and the incredible Parihaka Peace Hikoi.
I am grateful for the people of Parihaka and other New Zealanders like Andrew Judd and Howie Tamati.
But what the hikoi also showed me is that we have a very long way to go to really cement our bicultural foundations.
And those foundations are built upon people, friendships and relationships.
One of the things I’ve learned in this job is that not enough New Zealanders know our own history.
Both sides of our history, not just the history we were taught at school.
Knowing our history is crucial to good race relations.
As we can see from the United States right now, we ignore our shared history at our peril.
A few hours up the road some young women started something very special a few years ago and it ended up changing New Zealand history.
These Otorohanga College students - Rhiannon Magee, Tai Jones and Leah Bell - were on a class trip one day.
They were shocked and devastated to learn that only half an hour away from their school a massacre had taken place during the NZ Land Wars.
The girls were disturbed that they had never learnt about these wars that happened in their own community.
They wanted the country to recognise those lives that were lost and to remember these battles.
They questioned why so much was done to remember a war thousands of miles away in Europe and yet they weren’t taught about the war that happened on their own doorstep.
The girls launched a petition for the country to recognise the New Zealand wars and ended up with a staggering 130,000 signatures.
They presented the petition to parliament and thanks to their perseverance, next month on the 28th of October, the New Zealand Wars will be marked officially for the first time.
It’s been six years since these three amazing young women visited the Orakau battle site at Kihikihi and in those six years they have managed to change the history of our nation.
One part of our nation’s history many of us have been battling to draw attention to has been the abuse of children and disabled people who were held in our state institutions.
I would like to formally thank the league and your president Prue Kapua for being one of the first prominent New Zealanders to sign our open letter calling for an independent inquiry.
Earlier this year we called on survivors of state abuse to send us photographs from when they went into care as well as their stories.
We had an unprecedented response.
This photograph is from the first couple of days, hundreds of heartbreaking photos and tragic stories poured into our office.
My friend told me the story of her whānau member and it was one that I have heard many times over the past year.
Years ago in a small town he was caught stealing lollies at the local Four Square.
A report labelled him a thug and he was made a state ward.
He was 10 years old.
Put in a boy’s home where he was physically and sexually abused, he ended up doing very long stretches in isolation.
He’d spend months at a time in a single cell.
While there his parents died.
When he was let out he was sent to live with a series of strangers, some of whom also sexually and physically abused him.
He was to spend time in and out of prison.
He was an old man by the time he’d made meaningful contact with his whanau again.
By then he’d lost so many things: language, whakapapa, whanau, childhood.
The late Dr Ranginui Walker once told me:
Whatever you do Susan: don’t give up.
We need New Zealanders to keep talking about race relations.
And Ranginui was right.
So I’ve been retelling the tragic story of this little boy’s life and others like him because we know New Zealand children were more likely to be put into state institutions if they were Maori.
It’s something many of the people here today have been saying for years and years and years.
This is the very definition of institutional racism, systemic discrimination and unconscious bias.
Soon after we launched our open letter this year calling on New Zealanders to back our call for a public inquiry, a man I’ve known most of my life rang me up.
He told me:
“Susan. All the kiddies we were told to take were Maori kiddies.”
A former Police officer, he rang me after he’d heard the stories of Kiwis taken as kids into state care where they endured horrific abuse.
Until he’d heard their stories – particularly how many were taken for little or no reason at all – he’d never thought twice about the fact that every kiddie he’d dropped off at the children’s home was a Maori child.
He felt sick with guilt at the realisation that many of those children he picked up went on to face years of suffering.
While we suspect that institutional racism is a big reason why welfare homes were filled with mostly Maori children:
Until we have a public inquiry we will never know for sure and importantly we won’t have the evidence we need to shape our current welfare system.
The least our Government can do is apologise and investigate, it is appalling that they refuse to do either.
We know more than 100,000 New Zealand children and vulnerable adults were taken by the state between the 1960s and 1990s and subjected to inhumane abuse.
We suspect racial discrimination was at play, Māori children were more likely to be taken from their families for little or no reason at all.
Some State welfare homes reported that 80 to 100 per cent of the youngsters held were Māori.
Years later more than 50 per cent of our prison population are also Māori:
We do not believe this is a coincidence.
Academics, social justice advocates, and survivors themselves tell us that children’s homes were little more than a pipeline to prison.
I am convinced that the removal of Māori children into welfare institutions by the State was the real start of the systemic and mass imprisonment of Māori New Zealanders.
But without a full and public inquiry into the systemic abuse of children and vulnerable, disabled adults held in our State institutions we can never understand the root of the problems we are grappling with now.
In August we were at the United Nations in Geneva and the UN Committee tasked with combating racism responded by calling on the New Zealand government to initiate an independent inquiry into state abuse.
As we await a new Government to form what is important to remember is that every single political party in parliament – except for one – supports our call for an independent inquiry into historic state abuse.
I urge our political leaders to do the right thing, to do the moral thing.
It is never too late for justice. This little boy is worth it. And so are all the other children. They are all worth it.
Raising the voices of everyday people has been a big focus throughout my time as Race Relations Commissioner.
We realised early on that many New Zealanders did not think that racism or prejudice existed here.
Some people felt racism only happened in Australia or over in the United States.
But as you will all know – racial prejudice is not new to Aotearoa.
Racism and prejudice is something that generations of Maori New Zealanders have experienced and lived through.
Quite aside from the numerous Treaty of Waitangi breaches:
Maori New Zealanders faced not just casual discrimination but legislated discrimination.
Old age pensions and widow benefits were less for Maori.
Maori war veterans returned from World War Two and would receive fewer benefits and opportunities than other returned service people.
When they arrived home: they were still banned from entering licensed premises.
The reality is that after being welcomed back home, Maori Battalion vets were still not welcome in many hotels, bars and restaurants.
And while many years have passed since those days, we know that prejudice still exists. In different forms.
Even though a third of all complaints we receive are to do with racism: most people never formally complain when they’re refused a flat or humiliated in front of their class or workmates.
So this was our initial challenge: raising the voices of everyday New Zealanders so they could share their stories of prejudice and racism.
Last September we launched New Zealand’s first nationwide anti-racism campaign and because many Kiwis simply won’t believe racism exists in Aotearoa, we focused on raising the voices of everyday people and the prejudice they’ve faced every day, growing up in everyday New Zealand.
MPs, mechanics, award winning scholars, aged care workers, cleaners: they shared stories about the prejudice that exists in those quiet places.
From the teacher who told you God didn’t love the Tuhoe people because they were terrorists, your classmates who joke that your family car was stolen, the man who assumes you’re the cleaner and not a political reporter, the supermarket staff who racially profile you.
Some people like to call this kind of prejudice, casual racism.
But it certainly doesn’t feel casual when you or your family are humiliated or denied opportunities.
From university students to chief executives, cleaners to millionaires.
This young man in the top story told us:
“Over the years I’d get used to having to defend everything Maori, during class discussions other kids would argue that the Treaty is racist or that Maori scholarships are racist.
Once I got up to say that my scholarship came from my tribe not from the Government and someone shouted out “Hone Harawira” from the back of the class and everyone laughed at me. The teacher did nothing.
Being a Maori kid in a mostly Pakeha world, yeah.
You’re often put on the spot whether you like it or not. One minute you’re defending your tribe in class. Next minute you get told to lead the haka or speak at a pōwhiri for the school.”
Chief Executive, Glenis Philip Barbara told us:
“I recall as a young University lecturer working late in my office one night being asked by security if I was the 'cleaner'; as a freshly minted CEO attending a CEO forum being asked 'if I was in the right place'; and, at the council office paying my rates being asked if this house was 'really mine'. “
People shared their personal stories and the response was immediate and profound.
So far we have reached more than 3 million people through these heartfelt, real stories.
The other reality we have been grappling with in the past few years has been the rise of racial intolerance, overseas and closer to home.
But we know from academic studies as well as anecdotal evidence: that racism starts small.
Some of the bravest Kiwis I’ve ever met are our Jewish Holocaust survivors.
One elderly woman told me once that Hate starts small.
Hate started small with kids at school and then teachers making fun or humiliating Jewish children.
Hate grew with ads in the paper that said Jews weren’t allowed to do this or that.
And then one day Jews weren’t allowed to do anything and everyone was rounded up and taken away.
But this kuia also said hope starts small.
Hope starts when people stand up for what is right.
Hope grows when a bystander sticks up for a stranger who is being abused.
When a workmate refuses to laugh at the racist joke.
Racism starts small and it is a light feeder.
If we feed it, racism grows and turns into racial hatred.
This is what we are seeing in some places overseas and it’s what we never, ever want to see here in Aotearoa.
We called the next leg of our campaign Give Nothing to Racism because we needed to remind Kiwis that racism starts small.
And all it needs to grow is us.
So we need to give it nothing.
Racism feeds off our own thoughts, prejudices and actions.
We are the ones who feed prejudice and racism.
So often when we encounter these little pieces of racism, because we're only human and we don't like tension, we'll try to laugh it off, excuse it, diffuse it, pretend it isn't what it is.
And that covers it up.
And in doing these things, we passively agree. But what if we didn't? What if we frowned instead of laughed?
What if we blanked our mates instead of nodding? What if instead of walking past, we asked the woman being abused in a head scarf if she was OK?
This is what we are asking of New Zealanders.
Racism starts small. I've lost count of the number of times a mum or dad has asked me what their child should do when they face racist taunts or worse on the way home from school.
And yet so often there are people standing by ignoring what is going on in front of them.
We need Kiwis to check ourselves and our own behaviour.
But we needed to do it in a Kiwi way.
A way that would reach young people.
A way that would remind us of how racist behaviour is not how we like to think of ourselves as Kiwis.
So we asked New Zealander of the Year – the famous, funny and beloved Taika Waititi – who worked with us to write an anti-racism video and it all started from there.
The video Taika helped put together was classic Kiwi comedy, satirical, funny, hard case, hard hitting.
Next we approached some of our most beloved actors, musicians, athletes, comedians, journalists and leaders.
Kieran Reid. Moana Maniapoto. Sam Neil. Miriama Kamo. Sir Graham Henry. Karen Walker. Witi Ihimaera. Haley Holt. Sonny Bill Williams. Tim Finn. Tana Umaga. Wetini Mitai Ngatai. Lucy Lawless. Sir John Kirwan. Tiki Taane. Holly Walker. Ru Perera. Oscar Kightly.
The list goes on and on.
They all came in and recorded video memes of them Giving Nothing to Racism.
Their video memes sparked hundreds of people to record their own videos.
Before long we had schools and companies joining in.
So far our anti-racism campaigns in the past year have reached almost 8 million people.
Our videos have been viewed and our stories read and shared by millions.
The overwhelming majority of people have understood the point we’ve been trying to make.
Racism and hatred starts small.
Sometimes it lives in our everyday lives.
But it doesn’t have to.
We can stop casual racism from growing into something more extreme.
We can give it no encouragement. No respect. No place. No power.
We can Give Nothing to Racism.

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