Imagining Decolonised Cities presents a symposium, “What is a Decolonised City?”

This is an old piece of mine – from Salient magazine in 2017 – but I’m reposting [an edited version] for the relevance it has to broader conversations on the relevance of history to today, and the potential for constitutional transformation in Aotearoa. There were a number of powerful speakers that day in Porirua at Takapūwāhia Marae. This post focuses on two giants in their fields: Patricia Grace, and Moana Jackson.

First, some quick background. Imagining Decolonised Cities (IDC) was a collaboration between Ngāti Toa and Victoria University of Wellington inviting participants to (re)design a “decolonised urban space” in Porirua City. As well as an urban design competition, IDC also hosted a symposium exploring some of the themes and different values behind their challenge, and the ways they both are and are not being addressed. This article focus on them – reflecting the premise that for there to be any decolonised design, our society first needs a structural shift.

Patricia Grace.

The relevance of history to today

The day’s first keynote was Patricia Grace, esteemed author and uri of Ngāti Toa, Ngāti Raukawa, and Te Āti Awa, recently successful in her battle with NZ Transport Agency (NZTA) to have her family land near Waikanae spared from the motorway development. This has been a theme of Grace’s writing, with taking of land under the Public Works Act one of the archetypal ways in which the New Zealand government has alienated Māori from their land. She explained how the case had played out: how she had only been contacted after all opportunities for consultation had closed, how NZTA had claimed they hadn’t had her phone number, how her mother had been sick and that had occupied her, how the answer of “no” was one that was exceedingly slow to get through.

When they had finally met a representative of NZTA, Patricia’s husband had explained the land’s significance, how it was part of an old village and that there had been burials on the high part of the dune, that they didn’t want to sell it. Patricia was more blunt: “How many ways are there of saying no?”

NZTA were trying to acquire the land under section 18 of the Public Works Act, for the purpose of the Mackays to Peka Peka Expressway, and when Patricia applied to the Māori Land Court to have its status shifted to Māori reserve — a move that would establish it as inalienable, even by the Crown — NZTA opposed the action.

The matter proceeded to the Environment Court, where Patricia gave evidence of the land’s significance, of which we received a short summary. It had come down to her from Wiremu Te Kakakura Parata, one of New Zealand’s first Māori politicians and a man of some significance around Waikanae. Patricia described the area in the 1850s, sheep stations and fields of wheat, a flour mill — all Māori-owned. In 1884 land had been donated for the railway and some shops established as part of Wi Parata’s commitment to working together with Pākehā.

Wiremu Te Kākākura Parata, of Ngāti Toa and Te Āti Awa.

I found this strange when going over my notes. In 1877, in the case that bears his name, Wi Parata had challenged the Bishop of Wellington over land gifted for an Anglican Church that had never eventuated, his case famously dismissed by Prendergast CJ who had described Te Tiriti as “a simple nullity.” When Patricia Grace had mentioned it, hairs stood up on my head, but it wasn’t until writing this that I realised the timing: it all happened before he gifted the railway land. As Patricia said, “Tangata whenua in this country have given enough.”

Eventually the Environment Court found in Patricia’s favour, establishing a precedent that points to an increasing understanding of tikanga. The decision acknowledged that wāhi tapu has a broader meaning than just those physical components which can be pointed to: it is about the whole.

While no doubt pleased at her victory, and the precedent it has set, Patricia pointed out the irony of the Crown compensating with one hand while it takes under the Public Works Act with the other. She ended her kōrero with a sly dig at those who would boast before looking too closely: “We can’t have a great city while we have child poverty, while we have unclean water…“ Clearly, there’s a long way to go.

Chief Justice Prendergast, the Pākehā almost single-handedly responsible for dismissing the Treaty of Waitangi – although he was less outlier than ugly face of the times.

The potential for constitutional transformation

After lunch it was Moana Jackson’s turn to speak, his approach one of storytelling, short bits from his life, delivered calmly but with messages that were to resonate, each enlightening the next. For those who don’t know him, Moana is Ngāti Kahungunu, Ngāti Rongomaiwahine, and Ngāti Porou, and a highly regarded lawyer and legal academic. It was a privilege to hear him speak.

“Every land has stories within it,” he said, recounting a trip with his koro [grandfather] to their maunga, how he had been taught its myth and the story of its name. As they talked, his koro kept telling him to turn and look at the maunga, and eventually Moana realised what he was teaching him: “Things change… but what is important about change is that the foundations are strong.”

Moana Jackson, now a koro himself.

Another story focused on the future, and one of Moana’s mokopuna, raised in te reo and just starting to learn English. She was reading, and asked him, “What’s the future?” Moana explained how he had thought of Patricia Grace’s words from Potiki, how the past and future are just circles in time which we name for our convenience – opting instead for a simpler answer. The future is what’s yet to come.

“How do we find a future?” his moko asked, and Moana replied, “Perhaps we just walk towards it.” There was a silence, and Moana admitted he wasn’t sure how much had gone in.

The next day he spotted her packing a lunch, and watched as she walked past the window to her bike, their Pākehā neighbour trailing behind, as he was wont to do, a little bit younger and enthralled. “Where are you going?” the boy asked. “I’m going to find a future,” she said. “Can I come?” he asked and she looked at him and said, “Boy, can you keep up?”

Moana expanded: it was about whether everyone could keep up. He talked about how change is an ongoing process, the need to define what “colonisation” is, so that we have something clear to move away from. Colonisation isn’t just the destruction of language and the taking of land; it’s about changing how people see the world, the “imposition of power” — ways of governing that come from somewhere else.

In response to this imbalance, the independent working group Matike Mai Aotearoa was established by Margaret Mutu and Moana Jackson to explore different possibilities for constitutional transformation. The full report, available here, is the result of more than 250 hui carried out throughout ngā motu from 2012-2015.

Treaties, said Moana, are about relationships. Before 1840, he said, the world was built on relationships and whakapapa, and everywhere the land is full of stories of relationships — not partnerships. As Moana explained, partnership has a specific legal meaning, and referring to Te Tiriti as a partnership, as the government has been, is a redefinition of what it actually means. The problem is that you can have an unequal partnership, a senior and junior partner. But, Moana said, treaties are about “an equality of relationships… different, but equal.” Colonisation had destroyed that equality, and replaced it with a partnership. He suggested we only refer to a treaty relationship: “and we can make this land whatever we want to do with it.”

The key point is that “treaties aren’t settled; they are honoured.” And they are only honoured when the treaty and the relationship it establishes are worked through, and, as Moana explained, that hasn’t happened yet.

The future we shape is the past we take into it, the future we shape is what we imagine.

He went on to give us some history of his whakapapa’s experience with Te Tiriti. Many Kahungunu hāpu didn’t want to sign, but his did, travelling a considerable distance only to be told their female rangatira couldn’t sign — at the time, women were still considered property under English law, and certainly weren’t able to sign treaties — so they went home.

This was an example, he said, of some of the less visible elements of colonisation: the damage that has been done to our perception of self, and the impact it has on our intimate relationships. He alluded to domestic violence and its harm, how things weren’t always this way. In addition to its physical components, colonisation carries mental baggage: patriarchy and its evils, the idea of nature as inanimate — far cry from the relationships that existed before, where people were different, but equal. Moving past this was a slow process, that “of reclaiming our truth, of decolonising what we have been taught.”

To decolonise, he said, we don’t need to speak “truth to power,” because doing so privileges Crown power. Instead we needed to “talk the truth of our power, and in doing that, realise the power of our truth.”

Professor Margaret Mutu explains some of the backstory behind Matike Mai

In a relationship, everyone needs to work. It starts with simple things: pronouncing te reo correctly, educating yourself on the country’s history, and understanding that even as reparations are made, as long as there is an inequality in the balance of power then decolonisation is not done.

The process of decolonisation ends, he continued, with the country being brave and imaginative enough to ask what this relationship means in terms of power and legislative authority, in terms of constitutional authority. Ultimately, it is about autonomy and equality. And a position where Māori have to ask permission is a fundamental inequality.

We need to talk the truth of our power, and in doing that, realise the power of our truth”

Moana then turned to his research on Bolivia’s 2009 constitution, and how this had informed his own proposals for Aotearoa. Driven by indigenous voice, the process culminated in the recognition of the rights of Pachamama or the Earth Mother. There as here, her well being is primary: “she is our mother because she is the fount of all relationships.”

Moana explained how when the earth is put first, the process of decision making changes: “No one step is more important than the others — like the tukutuku panels, they’re all interrelated.” However, the Government had rejected his recommendations. He talked about how at times it felt like he was banging his head against a wall, how one of his moko had said, “Koro, why don’t we just walk around the wall?”

His final words were prophetic, 2040 set as the date for a new, decolonised constitution and it up to us, ngā tāngata katoa, to make it happen: “The future we shape is the past we take into it, the future we shape is what we imagine.” While decolonisation is made up of many little steps, it is the final that may be the most difficult: “people don’t easily give up power, but we walk towards it.”

Want to help walk the talk? In response to the Matike Mai report, a group of tauiwi has organised to take up its challenge of imagining how this future might look. You can join them on Facebook, or keep an ear out for one of the face to face meetings to come.

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