Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern about to be covered by the i'e toga, or fine mat, before Pasifika people as a symbol of ritual apology. Screenshot from livestream.

A moving, historic event of reconciliation in Auckland sees the Crown forgiven for its racist immigration policies, but asked repeatedly to fix the problems of today for Pacific peoples in NZ

Apologies offered are one thing. Apologies accepted, especially after generations of pain, are another. 

Speaker after speaker at yesterday’s historic Auckland Town Hall event at which the Government apologised to Pasifika people for the racist Crown policies of the 1970s, marked by the Dawn Raids, said they accepted the offer.

But not unconditionally. Most, and many with tears and broken voices, asked for action now to help communities still feeling prejudice and inequality, through migration policy, health delivery and economic inequities.

“Right Honourable Jacinda Ardern – I am very grateful for your Government for making the decision to apologise. The apology is a move in the right direction.” Tongan Princess Mele Siu’ilikutapu Kalaniuvaulu Fotofili

“I accept your apology … Today’s events can represent a new dawn  … I thank you. Fa’afetai. Fa’afetai. Fa’afetai tele lava … “You have come in good faith to close this past experience in our history. We have accepted your apology in good faith.” – Samoan educator Toesulu Brown

“I thank you for listening to the voices, as much as the silence, of the people most deeply affected. You have the heartfelt thanks of the Polynesian Panthers for this incredible moment.” – Panthers leader Rev Alec Toleafoa

– “We are thankful for the humility of today that has brought us to this place of forgiveness and reconciliation.” – Rev Fei Taule’ale’ausumai- Davis

– “A lot of us who are here are still treated as people who are passing through and not people who have turangawaewae here. We are not travellers like an American tourist .. We are people who have made Aotearoa New Zealand our home.” – Rev Tevita Finau

Rev Tevita Finau

And it was Rev Finau, speaking near the end, who used the equivalent of his sermon during the segment of prayer and Bible reading for the 1000 attendees, to make it clear to Ardern and her attending ministers, including Immigration Minister Kris Faafoi, that action on current immigration rules was needed now.

“We await the Minister of Immigration to act on a pathway for overstayers and less fortunate people here,” he said, once.  Then, talking of Christ having female qualities of resilience, courage and “putting things into action as soon as possible”, the minister said, again: “How much longer we will wait for the Minister of Immigration to act?”

He was echoing a call from Princess Mele Siu’ilikutapu, who opened the Pacific people’s response to the apology speech from Ardern and the ceremonial presentation of those words, framed and in scrolls, with fine mats (i’e toga).

Princess Mele Siu’ilikutapu

The princess said gifts offered by the Crown were “significant, very significant indeed, symbolising the Government’s intention to move the vā (relations, loyalty) with my community in that regard.

“I accept your apology,” she said, having stopped to wipe tears as she spoke. 

“However,” she added, with a long pause filled by some laughter in the crowd….”The vā could be better, could be better – and complete – should the Government promptly respond to the immigration-related needs of our community.”

After telling Ardern “Love you, Jacinda,” the princess mentioned petitions seeking pathways to residency for overstayers, and residency for visa holders in the workforce.

As well as the apology, which is here in full,  Ardern announced the Government would fund an official history of the Dawn Raids for education purposes, $2.1m in education scholarships and fellowships to Pacific communities, and $1m in Manaaki short-term training scholarships for young leaders from Samoa, Tonga, Tuvalu and Fiji.

Speakers acknowledged those moves. Toesulu Brown turned to Ardern directly and sought support for Pacific languages in schools. “We need our children to learn our languages and cultures at school at all levels, please.”

Toesulu Brown

A prayer by the Rev Taule’ale’ausumai-Davis sought a future world where refugees are welcomed, healthcare is able to be accessed equally by all, where nations and cultures live together in a society of “justice guided by love.”

Rev Finau raised the more prosaic contemporary issue of Pasifika players in sport and the Pacific nations’ teams experiencing injustice – “treated as colonies… to prop up the mighty Tier 1 rugby nations. Again, it is the powerful and the powerless.”

The event was not about the famous or the powerful, but many prominent in Pacific communities and politics were among the crowd: Former All Black Michael Jones, Auckland councillor Alf Filipaina, former 1970s activist Tim Shadbolt, sitting with former Waitakere mayor Sir Bob Harvey, actor and writer Oscar Kightley, Auckland Mayor Phil Goff.

Before she reached the Town Hall stage, Ardern had sat alone on a chair in front of those gathered, while her Pasifika ministers and MPs, Minister for Pacific Peoples Aupito William Sio, Social Development Minister Carmel Sepuloni and list MP Anahila Kanongata’a Suisuiki pulled up a large woven fine mat and covered her completely in a Samoan symbol of apology known as ifoga.

For a few moments, Ardern was alone underneath the mat before Pacific community leaders stepped forward and ceremonially removed it from her, one pulling her to her feet and into a long, long hug.

PM Jacinda Ardern covered by the i’e toga fine mat
The PM is uncovered and embraced.

The gesture carried deep meaning and presented the Crown as humble in now accepting and apologising for the wrongs of police raids on Pacific households in search of overstayers between 1974 and 1976.

The Labour Party has strong backing from many voters in the Pacific communities, but it was Labour that first authorised the Dawn Raids during the Kirk government, policies then expanded and accentuated by National under Sir Robert Muldoon.

The official apology was visibly Labour Party driven, rather than a show of cross-party political unity. National Party leader Judith Collins, who had strongly backed the apology, had been invited but was not present. The Speaker, Trevor Mallard and former Māori Party and Mana Party leaders Dame Tariana Turia and Hone Harawira were in the front row.

Ardern’s speech had opened with brief addresses in te reo Māori, Tongan and in Samoan, which in part said: “Although spilt water cannot be gathered again. And while no amount of rain can remove the bitter salt from the ocean waters, I ask you to let our spiritual connectedness soften your pain and allow forgiveness to flow on this day.”

She outlined the history of Pacific migration to New Zealand from the 1950s and in the 1970s the immigration policies that ultimately led to raids of the homes of Pacific families by police, at times with dogs, looking for those who may have breached their three month work visas.

“The statistics are undeniable. There were no raids on any homes of people who were not Pacific; no raids or random stops were exacted towards European people.”

Jacinda Ardern delivering the apology. 

Then, the Prime Minister said: “I stand before you as a symbol of the Crown that wronged you nearly 50 years ago.”

And, later: “Today I stand on behalf of the New Zealand Government to offer a formal and unreserved apology to Pacific communities for the discriminatory implementation of the immigration laws of the 1970s that led to the events of the Dawn Raids.

“The Government expresses its sorrow, remorse and regret that the Dawn Raids and random police checks occurred and that these actions were ever considered appropriate. .

“We convey to you our deepest and sincerest apology.”

Aupito William Sio, who hosted the gathering, oversaw the ceremonial presentation to Ngāti Whātua as mana whenua for Auckland, where the bulk of the raids occurred, and to representatives of Pacific communities and nations.

Aupito William Sio

Performances by church choirs and massed singing from the floor framed the speeches in response from the community leaders, with the Polynesian Panthers group that had objected first and loudest from the 1970s and had campaigned for an apology and redress since, holding their fists in the air and singing United we Stand.

Members of the Polynesian Panthers at the apology.

But the enduring memory of this historic event, beyond the sight of the ritual ifoga covering of Ardern and the tears – from Tongan Princess to commoner pictured high in the town hall on the livestream – beyond the singing and moments of laughter, will be a few minutes of profound audio played at the beginning.  

In a silent town hall, a series of loud knocks on doors – knocks, bangs, thuds, dogs barking, faint sirens, people distressed, babies crying. 

These were the sounds of injustice. Princess Mele Siu’ilikutapu, choking up, said: “It has haunted my community for years and it will be for years to come if we are not going to do the right thing.”

The apology being presented on stage.

Tim Murphy is co-editor of Newsroom. He writes about politics, Auckland, and media. Twitter: @tmurphynz

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