Kia kuru pounamu te rongo – Treasuring our mokopuna
Nā Alana Dixon-Calder
It’s leading the way in making mātauraka māori the rule, not the exception with a clear vision of ensuring Aotearoa is a place where all mokopuna can thrive. Independent from the Government, it advocates for the interests, rights and wellbeing of children and young people, while also serving as a watchdog of sorts – monitoring spaces where young people are detained, from care to youth justice residences.
While 2021 has seen a slew of changes announced within the public sector that signal a deeper commitment to embracing Māori, for Māori models – the announcement of a Māori health authority, for instance – the Office of the Children’s Commissioner (OCC) has long been a vocal, and visible, proponent of fully realising the intention of Te Tiriti o Waitangi. Last year, Children’s Commissioner Judge Andrew Becroft – formerly New Zealand’s principal Youth Court judge – was joined by Glenis Philip-Barbara (Ngāti Porou, Ngāti Uepōhatu, Clan McDonald), who stepped into the newly-created role of Kaikōmihana tuarua Māori mō ngā tamariki o Aotearoa/assistant Māori commissioner. The creation of this role cemented the importance of embedding the principles of Te Tiriti o Waitangi into all aspects of the organisation’s kaupapa.
The OCC’s landmark report, Te Kuku o Te Manawa, has played a pivotal role in its commitment to embracing the values of mātauraka Māori. The report considered changes needed to enable pēpi, aged up to 3 months, to remain in the care of their whānau when Oranga Tamariki had been notified of care and protection concerns.
It called for Oranga Tamariki to end its uplifts of pēpi from hospitals, urged the Government to commit to a transfer of power to Māori, and detailed a slew of alarming allegations from whānau and health professionals, including midwives, with firsthand experience of its uplift policy.
Many of the OCC’s strategic areas of focus – voices, anti-racism, mental wellbeing – trace their lineage back to the Te Kuku o Te Manawa report.
“I’ve always had an interest in how, as a wahine Māori and social worker, we make change, from grassroots and in our communities, through to governments and policy changes. I am a mokopuna for life. In my role here I get to grow and learn, and then my plan is to take that back to my hapū and the iwi.”
Kerri Cleaver Kāti Huirapa ki Puketeraki, Ōraka Aparima, Waihōpai
That authentic approach to enshrining the principles of mātauraka Māori was a self-professed drawcard for several kaimahi now working within the OCC. Among them is Kerri Cleaver (Kāti Huirapa ki Puketeraki, Ōraka Aparima and Waihōpai), principal advisor Māori – strategy, rights and advice, who made the move north after playing an integral role in the formation of Tiaki Taoka in Ōtepoti.
(With a mandate from Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu, Tiaki Taoka works with Oranga Tamariki to provide care and support to mokopuna, whānau and caregivers in Ōtākou. With its structure firmly steeped in Kāi Tahutaka, Tiaki Taoka is the foundation from which it is hoped an entirely new model of care will grow throughout the takiwā).
“The opportunity to work in this model of partnership for me is important. From Tiaki Taoka, I needed to go to a place where I could keep growing my knowledge – it needed to be a place where kaupapa Māori is respected and mātauraka Māori is actioned,” she says.
Kerri’s own experiences within the foster system, from the age of 13 to 17, fueled her decision to become a social worker and it continues to serve as a draw to work with whānau and mokopuna. Te Kuku was a “major reason” in the pull to being part of the OCC.
“I’ve always had an interest in how, as a wahine Māori and social worker, we make change, from grassroots and in our communities, through to governments and policy changes,” she says. “I am a mokopuna for life. In my role here I get to grow and learn, and then my plan is to take that back to my hapū and the iwi.”
“Having the opportunity to work in a professional space unafraid to explore what the Tiriti partnership and devolution might look like was a huge drawcard. Just being able to be present to witness history being made in this regard is amazing. For me, I would have applied for this role if there was even the smallest chance that I might be able to tautoko just one of the aspirational kaupapa coming out of the office.”
Martini Miller-Panapa Kāti Waewae, Kāti Māhaki
For fellow kaimahi Martini Miller-Panapa (Kāti Waewae, Kāti Māhaki), who works as an advisor in the development, monitoring and investigations space within the tari, that authentic approach also played a crucial part in his desire to be part of the kaupapa.
“Having the opportunity to work in a professional space unafraid to explore what the Tiriti partnership and devolution might look like was a huge drawcard. Just being able to be present to witness history being made in this regard is amazing. For me, I would have applied for this role if there was even the smallest chance that I might be able to tautoko just one of the aspirational kaupapa coming out of the office,” he says.
With Judge Becroft’s public support of Māori and for Māori approaches, he “modelled what it is to be an ally and acknowledged the importance of being committed to an ongoing Tiriti journey”, Martini says. Along with the Māori Children’s Commissioner more than a third of kaimahi at the OCC are Māori and having people such as Glenis and Kerri in Māori-specific roles ensures Māori “a louder voice at the leadership table”. That, in turn, means kaimahi are able to advocate successfully for mokopuna Māori, and bring mātauraka Māori into spaces which had, in the past, been reluctant to embrace its philosophies and perspectives, he says.
The value of the principles of mātauraka Māori, unchanged for generations, has been seen time and again – from responses to the Covid pandemic, the Christchurch mosque shootings, and more. Those principles are adaptable and universal – and enshrining them in the social fabric of Aotearoa would have a massive impact.
“I think we would see an Aotearoa New Zealand that our tūpuna would understand,” Martini says. “To be brutally pragmatic, the success of Māori is the success of wider Aotearoa New Zealand. That is success in every sense of the word – socially, economically, environmentally, whatever.
“As a country we are only as progressive and safe and loving as the country our least supported whānau live in,” he says.
It’s a perspective Kerri is quick to tautoko.
“We have a moemoeā at the OCC, ‘kia kuru pounamu te rongo’ (which roughly translates to, ‘all mokopuna feel as treasured as they can be’), which really speaks to how our mokopuna feel in our world: that they feel like the most treasured, and the most important, in their whānau and their communities. That’s the aspiration – that systems are no longer representing patriarchal, paternalistic systems of oppression that create intergenerational barriers preventing our whānau and mokopuna from realising what was promised in their whakapapa and in the intent of te Tiriti.”
Long-term, dismantling a system that – by its very design – was set up to disenfranchise Māori would benefit all young New Zealanders, she says.
“What we need to do now is be brave in pulling it down and building systems that are designed to meet Māori needs. What works for Māori will work for all, because the core starting point is around the principles of manaakitaka, aroha, tika, pono and rakatirataka, which enable unity,” she says. “Te Kuku talked about the need to stop tinkering around the edges and embrace a vision of power-sharing models. In the interim, we will need a plan around how we get the best outcomes for our mokopuna – so we need Māori communities to be given opportunities to build their responses.”