Pacific leaders thanked Jacinda Ardern for her formal apology for the dawn raids yesterday, at the same time as challenging the government to work to ensure the racism experienced by their communities is rubbed out.
Shortly after emerging from underneath a finely woven mat, as part of a modified version of the Sāmoan Ifoga forgiveness ceremony, Jacinda Ardern declared a “formal and unreserved apology” for the dawn raids on the homes of Pacific people in 1970s New Zealand.
“Our government conveys to the future generations of Aotearoa that the past actions of the Crown were wrong, and that the treatment of your ancestors was wrong,” the prime minister told a packed Auckland Town Hall. “We convey to you our deepest and sincerest apology.”
Ardern acknowledged that words alone were not enough and announced $3.1m in education scholarships for Pacific youth in New Zealand and those in Samoa, Tonga, Tuvalu and Fiji who wished to come here for training.
“It is my sincere hope that this apology will go some way in helping the Pacific youth of today know, with certainty, that they have every right to hold their head up high, and feel confident and proud of their Pacific heritage, and in particular the sacrifices their parents and grandparents have made for Aotearoa New Zealand,” she said.
On behalf of the Tongan community, Princess Mele Siu’ilikutapu Kalaniuvalu Fotofili recalled her own memories of hearing of the raids and the sorrow it caused her. She urged the government to consider creating more equitable pathways to residency and offering an amnesty to current overstayers.
“We accept your apology,” she said. “However …” After a long pause she added that the government’s offer could be better if it were to “promptly respond to the immigration needs of our community”, prompting vocal acclamation from the audience. “This is a new dawn for my community and the Pacific community at large so let us count our blessings.”
Respected community leader and pioneering educationalist Toesulu Brown spoke on behalf of the Samoan community. As she held back tears, she reiterated how important it was for this dark part of New Zealand’s history to be shared with future generations, and also how impressed she was that Ardern had “apologised for something that did not happen on your watch”.
She said: “I thank you, faafetai, faafetai, faafetai.”
Māngere East couple Roger Fowler and Lyn Doherty were among the hundreds that packed into the Town Hall. Doherty said they fought alongside the Polynesian Panthers right from the group’s inception as part of an ally organisation called the People’s Union. “I lived with some of them,” she said.
“We were in the Pig Patrol. So we would listen in on scanners and then follow the police as they arrived at houses. We’d take photos for evidence of police trying to provoke families into violence and then we would give out pamphlets and inform those being detained of their legal rights.”
Fowler said it was special to be present at the event but the struggle continued. “An apology doesn’t stop institutional racism,” he said. “It is a important historical occasion and it’s just the beginning really as there’s still a lot of work to be done.”
One Tree Hill College pupils Amber Neilnili and Courtney Matthews attended with teacher Katie Philson. Matthews said they first “learnt about this at school” and the pain the dawn raids caused, so “having this apology has released some of that trauma in a way”.
Neilnili said she hoped the event would mark a change in how Pacific people are treated in New Zealand. “This apology is long overdue and it marks a very special moment for Pacific people and I think this would pave a path for the government and Pacific people to have reconciliation.”
Two of the youngest faces among dignitaries on the stage for the apology were Josiah Tualamali’i and Benji Timu. The pair were singled out by Polynesian Panthers’ co-founder Rev Alec Toleafoa as being instrumental in getting this event happening, by driving a petition campaign that was presented to parliament earlier this year.
Timu was “humbled” to be a part of it all, and said it went “perfectly” given how hard it was just getting this event to occur. “We just happened to be the people who got it out there. We knew nothing about [the dawn raids] while at high school, and given there had been no apology, we thought we should spark up a movement to get it going.”
Tualamali’i said his hope from Sunday was that the government would start to be more responsive to the needs of all Pacific communities. “We have our values and ways of being as Pacific people, but we are also Niueans, Tongans, Sāmoans and Cook Islanders as well. So it’s important the government takes the time to hear from the different communities about what they need and that will only strengthen what’s been done here today.”
A number of church ministers also responded to the government’s apology and the scripture that repeatedly came up was Micah 6:8, which talks about how God is more impressed by acts of mercy and justice than rituals.
And with parliament’s speaker Trevor Mallard a few rows back from the stage, Methodist minister Rev Tevita Finau reminded those gathered that a government shouldn’t be judged whether it uses prayer in parliament or not, but by its actions. “I believe we have not lost any blessing by not reciting the Lord’s prayer in parliament, but we will lose it all, if we lose the will to do justice and love kindness and walk humbly.”