Hamish McKenzie - student, London, Ontario

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Caricaturising the Treaty

The Treaty of Waitangi is not the rigid old document Keith Ng would like to dismiss it as. It is a living, breathing agreement between two peoples with noble and fair intentions. It is a compromise, a deal; it is a point of reference for two distinct cultures each hoping to preserve their ways of life and what is important to them.

The treaty is the condition on which we are all here. Without it, white people would still have come in large numbers, but they may have tried take the country by force (although as the New Zealand Wars proved, they would've had a mighty struggle in doing so).

And it's an agreement actually worth celebrating. It is an attempt to ensure indigenous peoples don't get trampled on, stolen from, exploited, abused, ignored, or ethinically cleansed. It is an attempt by the British Crown -- its conscience pricked by humanitarian groups such as the Aboriginal Protection Society -- to make sure indigenous people are treated as people rather than impediments, as they were in Australia, the United States, and Canada.

It is far from perfect, of course -- hurriedly compiled, roughly translated -- but to our great credit we've developed enough as a society to recognise the seeds of respect and a sense of justice within that document; seeds we've allowed to grow.

Yes, to some extent the treaty can be used as a last resort legal measure -- thanks to the State Owned Enterprises Act of 1986, and subsequent legislation -- but that should only happen when there's been a breach of the treaty. Because Maori have complied with their end of the deal by ceding sovereignty to the Crown, it stands to reason that, historically at least, the Crown is going to be the guilty party most often. I'm glad there are laws in place to protect against that.

I don't need to give you a history lesson for you to know that, since Ngai Tahu's first complaint to Queen Victoria in 1848, there has been a litany of breaches of the treaty, accelerated by the forming of a settler government in 1853 that demanded Maori be cleared off the land to make way for more settlers.

But more recently we've seen some laudable attempts to redress those injustices. The process goes on, and so does the resistance, but we continue to make progress despite hostile attacks on the treaty's worth. Today, Maori have some of those forests, fisheries, lands, and taonga they were promised in 1840 but were subsequently robbed of via war, confiscations, criminal purchases, and criminal connivances.

Okay, so: last resort legal document? Yes, to an extent. Flexible agreement ensuring respect and fairness for two distinct cultures? Absolutely. Not that it's always worked out that way.

Today, of course, we have more than two distinct cultures. But there's nothing to fear from the treaty. It's not threatening anyone's New Zealandness. Despite what some rhetoricians might say, there is no complicating point in the treaty about who is a New Zealander. We are all New Zealanders. What Maori want, however, is the right to be Maori as well; just like how Asians don't want to turn their backs on their heritages. The treaty ensures/insures that.

There's no need to be scared of the treaty. Maori aren't going to rise to become our overlords anytime soon. Maori aren't going to steal your property. Maori aren't, for God's sake, going to fence off the beaches. No, more likely they'll stay at the bottom of society, where too many have languished now for more than 145 years. (I'm giving them a grace period of 20 years since the treaty was signed, until they were ultimately outnumbered by Pakeha.)

It's sad. Maori, the original people of New Zealand, the tangata whenua, are the ones who have had to adapt to a new way of life; Maori are the ones who have had to make the sacrifices so this country could be what it is today. Yet, when they speak up for themselves, they're shouted down by opportunist politicians eager to capitalise on rising redneck sentiment, while Garrick Tremain sketches a cartoon proving the murrys are nothing but big-lipped money-hungry whingers who want to live in the past.

Respecting the treaty is not a matter of coercion by law. It is a matter of behaving like adults, of seeing both sides of the coin, of not reducing complex histories to caricatures. One would hope we're mature enough to achieve that.