Images from the Dawn Raids era, by photographer John Miller as part of an exhibition at Pātaka museum in Porirua. The Polynesian Panthers were at the heart of a movement to get an apology from the Government. Photo: RNZ/Moera Tuilaepa-Taylor

Josiah Tualamali’i looks back at our history to give context and meaning to the fight to get Pacific people’s mana recognised in apology for the Dawn Raids 

June is one of the few months for my aiga where we do not have a birthday to celebrate. But it is a month where we have other special moments to recognise such as the annual commemoration of Samoan Independence Day on June 1.

It’s also an important month given that on June 4, 2002, former Prime Minister Helen Clark gave an apology to Samoa for New Zealand’s despicable colonial administration between 1914-1962. And after yesterday’s announcement, on June 26, 2021, this Government will give only the third national apology separate from a Treaty process.

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My Dad came to Aotearoa from Samoa to work to support our aiga back home in 1987, just over a decade after the racist Dawn Raids took place. While Dad did not experience these government actions (which saw Pacific people specifically targeted in a series of ongoing early morning raids on homes) when he arrived in Aotearoa he was quickly caught up to speed by his friends in Auckland and Dunedin that in New Zealand you had to be extremely careful around authorities who could not be trusted to treat you fairly. 

While it’s not often that the Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Leader of the Opposition Judith Collins agree on language, it could not have been more important yesterday when they both called the Dawn Raids “discriminatory” and that an apology was an important part of acknowledging it should never happen again.

I did not hear about the Dawn Raids at school. It was not until I went to the University of Canterbury that I learned from friends, and in one of our classes, about what took place. I always knew that many of our matua had difficulty trusting government authority but it wasn’t until this moment when I had a deeper understanding of what it meant for families who had been welcomed here to help fill the labour needs in the 1960s, expected to be given fair and equal treatment under the law like other people in Aotearoa, and within a decade were not.

Knowing there will be an apology is a great relief. Many people have campaigned for this to happen, but the people who set, and kept tending, the spark for this action were the original Polynesian Panthers, who called for an apology at an event at the start of this year.

I saw a tweet with their comments, and with my flatmate Selwyn Gamble at the start of March made short videos encouraging our friends to handwrite letters to our Prime Minister so our leaders could literally feel the weight of our words. Our friend Benji Timu picked this up and encouraged groups like Plantation Conversations to share this on instagram. The focus for all of us was wanting to #TautokoThePanthers. As our community matua, it was crucial to back them up – after everything they’ve done over so many decades, it felt wrong that they might continue to carry this alone. While we don’t know how many handwritten letters were sent to the Government, they came from people from all backgrounds and communities. 

Just one of the deeply personal handwritten letters sent to the Government. 

Benji and I got to meet the Panthers and show them the letters we’d seen. They were blown away that people across Aotearoa would want to help raise this cause too. Benji and I felt that there was a good chance that an apology would happen but we wanted to ask Parliament directly. So we put out a petition which was signed by 7366 awesome people.

While we don’t yet know what will be part of the apology, whether connected or separate to this, at least 7366 New Zealanders would like to see a special debate in our Parliamentary chamber with the text written into our Hansard records of our Parliament the views of all parties on this topic.

The strength of a cross-Parliament tautoko for this action sets out a much more meaningful future by the past being owned fully. The petition also calls for a legacy fund to be set up – similar to the Chinese Poll Tax Heritage Trust set up in 2002 after the apology from former Prime Minister Helen Clark, which included $5 million “as a gesture of reconciliation in support of the formal apology”.

While we will have to wait for June 26, I think there is a strong likelihood the Government will follow suit in the ways that Ardern said yesterday (in that any apology would be in the nature of previous apology). But as to something like a $5 million figure – which would help significantly to address the community-wide impact – I’m less sure.

Regardless of the money, it is the commitment to people’s mana that must happen. While this is an important stake in the ground, at the same time financial resources would go a long way to give the apology legs. 

Whatever the outcome of the June 26, if this community advocacy has taught me anything it’s that we can make better decisions. And Aotearoa a stronger country when we participate, and speak up for what matters to us.

My friend reminded me last night that we saw this in our Pacific Aotearoa history in 1982, when Falema‘i Lesa successfully took a case to the Privy Council and won against the New Zealand government for the extremely racist denial of New Zealand citizenship overnight to Samoan citizens.

While all other Samoans lost their citizenship, Falema’i remains one of the few New Zealanders to be named in an Act because she and her support crew raised her voice challenging this injustice to deny a fundamental right. Perhaps with the valuable relook at the Dawn Raids’ legacy, one of the next actions in Pacific people’s policy in Aotearoa would be this.

What has taken place here also highlights how important it is having strong Pacific people’s, and all communities’ representation in Parliament leading to better decisions. Fa’afetai tele lava – thank you very much to Afioga Hon. Aupito Sua William Sio, our Pacific Ministers and MPs (including Green MP Teanau Tuiono). And while I am so grateful for this leadership it is my deep hope that coming into our next election we will have Pacific people on the Government and Opposition, restoring the balance that was lost last year for the first time since 2008.

This month of June will forever be an annual month of Pacific commemoration and advocacy activation. It could not be more fitting that in 2021, June also leads into Matariki, and for many of our Pacific aiga, Matariki this year will literally usher in new beginnings.

Josiah Tualamali'i is a Pacific youth advocate from Ōtautahi Christchurch. He' a former panel member of the Government Inquiry into Mental Health and Addiction (2018), mental health policy advisor & board...

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