Actress Jennifer Ward-Lealand Te Atamira, a long-time champion of the arts, and te reo Māori is the Kiwibank New Zealander of the Year for 2020. Mark Jennings reports on the night that honours the best of us.

What does it mean to be a New Zealander? The question was posed by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern just before she presented the ultimate award at last night’s dinner.

More often than not, Kiwis struggle to come up with an answer when asked to define what makes us different to the rest of world. It is an intangible thing – or is it? By the time the PM reached the stage, the 700 people attending the awards had a pretty good idea of the answer.

They had seen the humbleness, humour, energy, persistence, inventiveness, generosity and kindness of the 18 finalists in the six categories. They reflected the qualities many of us would like to have.

Young New Zealander of the Year Georgia Hale has represented her country in four different sports, visits hundreds of schools to promote healthy living and support intellectually disabled kids. She was asked how did she fit everything into her day? “I get up really early and go to bed very late” she replied.

Senior New Zealander of the Year, 84 year old Dame Margaret Sparrow, has been a leading advocate for abortion law reform. She spoke of doing her own abortion in 1956. “ I could’ve gone to jail for seven years but I never spoke of it and nobody knew.

“Today abortion is a health issue not a crime,” she said. Prime Minister Ardern was the first person in the room to her feet and applauded loudly.

If Kiwi informality is a special trait, then TV presenter Toni Street has it. MC’ing the black tie event with fellow TV presenter Scotty Morrison, Street interviewed the winners of the Community of the Year Award – Good Bitches Baking. “How many chards down were you when you came up with that name?” Street asked. The reply from Wellington’s Nicole Murray and Marie Fitzpatrick was lightning fast: “It was pink bubbles actually.”

Good Bitches Baking delivers home baking to those going through trauma or tough times.

“The work we do is about kindness,” the women said.

New Zealand’s number 8 wire heritage got a few mentions during the night, but the winner of Innovator of The Year, Bill Buckley, is all about precision. He has made a fortune from building machines that make silicon chips. Buckley is a rough diamond with a big heart and a mighty sense of humour. He has poured $50 million of his own money into developing a 21m-long neutron accelerator that can treat head and neck cancer.

It is about to begin trials in a Finnish hospital.

Buckley half stunned but mostly bemused the audience when told them “The Americans didn’t think an accelerator could do the job because it needed to go above 2 million volts. I wound mine up to 2.6 million volts. If you’ve got a brain tumour, I can fix it with just one shot” He challenged “Jacinda” to buy one “after all it is election year”. The laughter is drowned out by a standing ovation – just.

A common theme throughout the night was the use of te reo. The hosts, the sponsors presenting awards and the recipients all spoke in te reo Māori. The days where only one of New Zealand’s official languages is heard are fading quickly.

Jennifer Ward-Lealand Te Atamira’s victory is a reflection of the changing times. She is a champion of te reo as much as she is for the arts and the country’s actors.

She started learning the language in 2008. She was gifted the name Te Atamira (the stage) by Māori elders for championing the language in the arts community. She has added it to her English surname because “it is a challenge in the best sense of the word. It is an urging on (for others)”.

After a fluent acceptance speech, Ward-Lealand said learning te reo “had fundamentally changed her as a New Zealander. I feel more comfortable in my own skin now and connected to the land.”

Earlier, Ward-Lealand told Newsroom she had noticed a significant change in attitude towards the Māori language about five years ago.

“People used to ask me why? What use is it to you? I felt like I had to justify it, like there had to be some economic benefit or something. Some people would look askance and go, ‘oh that’s nice’.

“I started by doing one night a week at evening class….it was hard, I was 46. I used to be good at French but my French is useless now as I obviously don’t have the ability to hold more than two languages in my head.”

Ward–Lealand says the arts sector is quickly adopting the language .

“About five years ago, the greetings started changing and in the arts world we have embraced that change in a very fast way. It has made a profound difference to the way drama projects start and finish. I think we could go faster. We have an amazing opportunity in this country because we are so small and we embrace change really quickly.

“I use te reo every day, if I do a Facebook post I do it in both Māori and English. There is a point where you stop translating your English speaking thoughts and start thinking in a Māori way and its different. I’m really happy to be a champion for te reo Māori.”

Mark Jennings is co-editor of Newsroom.

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