Kia ora, welcome to another episode of Brazen. The podcast sharing incredible stories from incredible women.
I’m Susie Ferguson and in this episode we’re going to hear from someone who describes themselves as a Social Justice Warrior, hoping to reshape the pale, stale, male world of law.
Julia Whaipooti is the chair of Just Speak, a network of young people speaking up for a more fair and just Aotearoa. Julia also works as an advisor to the Children’s Commissioner, Judge Andrew Becroft, and sits on the board of the Drug Foundation.
She’s super smart, pulls no punches, and is not at all afraid of a little discomfort. Julia is of Ngāti Porou descent, hails from the East Coast, and that’s where she begins her story.
Julia: I was born in Gisborne. Both my parents are from the Coast, Ngāti Porou ways. Dad Ruatoria and Mum Tauraroa and Hicks Bay. So first few years of my life was in Ruatoria, but then we moved across to Australia when I was three, cause Mum wanted to go find work and all of that. Mum and Dad left without us, actually, in the beginning, so they could find some work. And Mum fraudulently enrolled my dad in the police, and he started Police College. He got a letter and she told him, “You’ve been accepted into the police and you’re going to Police College”. So I spent the first almost half of my life over in Aussie before we ended up coming back.
Susie: And when you were over there, were you connected to other Māori in the area, did you come back for holidays? How did you experience that growing up?
Julia: I actually think it’s like a really big point of how I can do the work that I do here at the moment, was the fact that I, over in Australia, was just a girl. And I could exist in that way. And also I’m a lighter colour than my mum and my brother particularly, they’re much darker. And so I could just be my full self without feeling the burden of things from a societal lens. So very much raised with the values that I think are part of being Māori, but we just didn’t have names or labels for them and just is how it is. Cause my parents instilled that kind of stuff in us. Yeah, but it wasn’t until we came back when I was like 14 or 15 that I became acutely aware that I was Māori and that meant something different to New Zealand.
Susie: And what made you realise that you were Māori, and that was a difference and a thing?
Julia: So I always knew I was Māori, always knew I was Ngāti Porou, but those were just facts, they just like fact of my being. We moved to Marlborough, Blenheim, which is like a pretty Pākehā town, and I just became aware at school that I was, almost like reverse targeted, hit up to be a prefect, hit up and celebrated because I was really exceptional, but it became very apparent that it was because I was Māori. And I was pretty hoha back then, I was sort of like, I’m good because I’m good, not cause I’m Māori, and sort of had that kind of reaction at the time. I truly think that if I grew up here, I probably would have carried the burden of what it means to be Māori in the day to day and I wouldn’t be as righteous or as free or as confident to do the work that I do or to advocate the way that I do, because I feel insanely entitled to exist as who I am and who we are, and I don’t have to apologise for that.
Susie: So, what do you mean by saying, if you’d done those early years here you’d be in a different place? Why do you say that?
Julia: I think that the, and we can see that statistically, but the way that people perceive what it means to be Māori and how that’s defined through colonial lens and through the structures that we exist in education or schooling, and the expectations placed on Māori, every day is lower, and I didn’t experience that. I didn’t experience that somehow being Māori as defined by people stopping you in the shops or having police in your life, or just expected to go into subjects that aren’t, like the science and the maths and the English, when we get our kids channelled into doing things that are like home economics and trade classes, it doesn’t allow us to just be, and make our own pathways. There are things that are expected of us, so it’s lower.
Susie: I’m interested in this because you did a lot of your growing up in Australia, which is also a colonised society. Why do you think it was different?
Julia: Well we’re not indigenous to Australia. The experience for all indigenous cultures is the same in colonised countries. The incarceration rates, the oppression and stolen land and culture and all of that stuff. That was not our experience in Australia, and so there was almost, I think for Australians there’s another group to hate that doesn’t involve me or Māori. There was this other group to hate. So they gave us privilege and leverage. As tangata whenua of New Zealand we forget that we are on other people’s land and we benefit from not being hated on. And that’s straight up.
Susie: What do you think about having spent a big chunk of your life somewhere else? Did you think about it at the time, that you were on someone else’s land?
Julia: No, not at all. I don’t think I, I wasn’t aware of racism, I wasn’t aware, you didn’t have the words for it. I mean, I can look back as an adult now and I can look at experiences that I saw within my own whānau and attach those kinds of things on it, but you just live your best life. This is the greatest gift my parents gave to me, was just the ability to live my best life, to go out, play sport, do stuff, to be confident and to expect that I’m entitled or deserve to be heard and be seen. So I was just able to be a kid, and I think that that is a beautiful thing. But you come back at the age where you start asking questions, say around 14, 15, I started going, “Why is this like that?” And “why is that like that?” So I came home at the right time.
Susie: Colonisation, it’s more than 250 years now since Captain James Cook first sighted Aotearoa, has colonisation stopped?
Julia: No, not at all. We exist in laws and policies and structures founded off colonisation, which comes off a fundamental white supremacist belief that white culture was better than what we had here going on. I think the incarceration of our people, the fact that over half our prisons are filled with Māori, that almost three-quarters of our kids who are in what I call ‘kid prisons’ and are taken from whānau are Māori. That almost 80% of our young ones who get remanded into kid prisons, as well, Māori. Our education experiences are lower. But the structures still fundamentally come from a colonial perspective. Even the way our courts operate. That doesn’t even work. New Zealand’s unique in our culture, both with Pākehā culture and as indigenous people here. And we’ve just happily continued to run off the structures that were placed on us, when Cook arrived, and since the Treaty.
Susie: So why do you think a lot of people probably think that colonialism was something that happened a long time ago, then, and isn’t something that continues on now?
Julia: Because it’s more comfortable to think that way, and it takes away responsibility and accountability. I think it’s hard to take ownership and think, Oh, I’m a benefactor of really shit colonial white supremacist practice. That’s a hard thing I think people struggle with on a personal level, on a border, like their place in community – by people I’m talking about Pākehā New Zealand. I think that all New Zealanders should be proud of who we are, and that means accepting the truth and the reality of our histories, in order that we know how to move forward. I mean, colonialism looks like an education system that has proactively made sure that our history wasn’t taught in schools. That’s what it looks like.
So we’ve got generations of people who come, who grew up in New Zealand, who don’t know the atrocities that have happened in our history and from Pākehā ancestors of white New Zealand who came through in the first place. But also the promises as well for white New Zealand when they arrived here, settlers, they had been sold a dream and lies as well. But it is far more comfortable not to accept the wrongs of our past, and to think of it as something that is disconnected from our own responsibilities.
Susie: And so how do we right the wrongs? How do we make things better?
Julia: I think it is an ongoing journey. Jen Margaret, she’s a treaty educator, Pākehā woman, who talks about the Pākehā nation, and how important it is as Pākehā to own being Pākehā, and what does that mean? Knowing who you are, and that is informed because we’re in New Zealand, that is informed through a Māori lens. Pākehā does not exist without Māori. So being active about learning who you are, learning our history, and how structures and systems have been created that you benefit from. If you’re Pākehā in New Zealand you benefit off colonisation. That doesn’t mean you stole my land. That doesn’t mean that you’re racist. But you benefit from our racist history and colonisation. And you need to sit with that, and own in, and go, what does that look like?
Susie: Cause it’s not very comfortable, right?
Julia: 100% not. No one likes to be uncomfortable in this way. But that’s also Pākehā privilege, where you can choose not to engage. You can choose to say, “that’s in the past, I don’t need to know about this”. So I’m saying to you that you have to exercise the privilege to make the decision to engage.
Susie: When I wake up every morning, well not every morning cause it’s usually dark, but when I wake up every morning on the weekend and I open the curtains and I look into my garden and onto the water at Evans Bay, I do wonder whose land that is that I live on now. And I don’t know sometimes what the right way to engage with that is.
Julia: The Waitangi Tribunal’s like a record of our history. So I’d go there. But not everyone’s kind of like that dorky as well. That’s not a fun or sexy thing to do. But I’m just thinking about
Susie: Are you saying I’m dorky? Oh my god.
Julia: I’m just trying to talk to, you know, the dorky people in the world go to the Waitangi Tribunal. But I was just thinking about this moment only last week. I’d been out on the road talking with whānau who have had the experience of Oranga Tamariki in their lives, making sure that their words are given life and that. But I was sitting at my desk doing that, and the Endeavour, the replica, was coming into the harbour. And then one of my friends, Pākehā, was in the office, and the excitement, cause they rushed to my window, to say, “Look, it’s coming in!” Taking photos. And that juxtaposition.
Like, I know the people that I’m working with and have good hearts and openness to owning shit, but that’s the reality that that was seen as a really beautiful thing. And in that moment, when I’m listening to interviews of mamas who have had, by the powers of the state, promised that if they got rid of one child they could keep the other children, that is the level of what colonisation looks like. It’s not just this abstract concept, historical thing that happened. It was like a really uncomfortable feeling. And also a reality of what it means to be in New Zealand. My particular issues around the replica, it’s just the amount of money, it’s just a misplaced sort of celebration or recognition to put millions of dollars to build this stunning boat without knowing that that is, that brought in syphilis and alcohol and the patu of laws that took away Māori language and culture or actively tried to do that. Why would you build this big huge waka to show us that? That was like a trigger for some of us.
Susie: What did you make of the expression of regret that was given by the British High Commissioner, Laura Clarke, when the Endeavour first came to, near Gisborne?
Julia: I think that’s good. I think it was a beautiful thing. That happened in Tairāwhiti on the East Coast, that’s where I live, and our iwi chose not to have a pōwhiri to welcome in the Endeavour, cause why would we do that? I think that owning it and recognising it, I think that that was a powerful symbolic act, and necessary in order for us to move forward.
Susie: To talk more about some of the way that New Zealand has worked through its colonial history, through the Treaty settlements, I think is it three cents in the dollar, in terms of value that Māori got back for the land that was stolen? That doesn’t sound like a good deal, eh?
Julia: Well, no, in an economic sense. But I guess treaties aren’t made to be settled. They were made to be honoured, and it’s a relationship that hasn’t been, still isn’t. I mean, there are moves and gestures and policy documents written about it, but every day it’s not honoured. Every day when we don’t have, as people, decision-making powers on things that affect us, where we have a treaty settlement process that was designed in a kāwanatanga space and Pākehā courts that say, oh, we’ll talk about how the Treaty’s going to be settled here.
When the initial fiscal cap for the Treaty settlements was a billion dollars, and we spend one and a half billion dollars every year locking up Māori. That’s a violence. Or you know, you hear Naida Glavish talk about, would our tupuna, ancestors, have signed the Treaty if they knew that you were going to lock our people up and isolate them from the communities to which we belong, which before colonisation was the worst thing that could ever happen, to be separated from whānau. Or that you were going to take our babies. They would never have signed over their power. And now we have to fight to be given the chance to do that for ourselves.
Susie: Do you think a lot of Pākehā fail to recognise the Treaty, and fail to take it into account? Because I’ve encountered several instances where it hasn’t been considered when a policy’s been drawn up. And so suddenly at the end, it’s like a tick-box, “oh, what’s the relationship to Te Tiriti?” “Oh, I dunno”. Do Pākehā treat it as an afterthought? And Māori treat it as a starting point?
Julia: 100%. Particularly in our government agencies, you have many people who are not equipped with that knowledge. Because our education system has not given that knowledge. But then there comes a responsibility to find that knowledge, but the exercise of privilege means that many Pākehā don’t. I think about, so having been on the Justice Advisory Group for the last year, with the likes of Chester Burrows and Tracey McIntosh and Ruth Money, the main learning for me is the power that sits within bureaucracies, and the rigidity of those structures, that there is no accountability within there.
You have all of these Pākehā, every single government agency has ‘improving outcomes for Māori’ as the number one thing, why can’t we be the ones who are in charge of, what does that look like? You’ve got all of these people taking up space but who cannot see that perhaps that’s not the experts in doing this. But we have a system that just lets that breathe and sit and continue to be like that. It’s not the fault of individuals, it’s the fault of a structure and a system and our history that has allowed that to happen. All of these people working in places that are like, how are we improving outcomes for Māori, what are you doing to understand, what does that look like and are you talking to the right people and are you the best people to be making those decisions for us?
Susie: Tell me about some of your, your personal, your whānau experience within some of these colonial structures. You obviously are really successful, but it hasn’t worked out well for everyone.
Julia: I think that to be Māori and be working in these spaces, it doesn’t matter whether you’ve got PhDs, law degrees, money falling out of trees, you cannot not be personally affected by our whānau who’ve been removed by the state, whether that’s through locking them up in prisons, whether that’s by ignoring often mamas who are calling out for help, or who won’t do that because they’re more scared of the response from the police. But yeah, within my own whānau, I’m out there talking about prison transformation, justice transformation, what does that look like for New Zealand, when I have my own whānau breathing in prison at the moment. I’m very aware of the push for systemic change is needed so that our structures don’t cause more harm, and also the reality of what it means to have people in your own whānau who you’re trying to support, who are hurting our own whānau. And I’m very fortunate that we have a really strong whānau that can take care of ourselves. And it’s still really quite personally difficult to go, how can we change these things for ourselves?
Susie: How do we change these things?
Julia: I think it’s everyday actions and belief. Justice Joe Williams talks about, that we cannot give up hope, it can feel overwhelming and hopeless, and if we were to say it’s too hard then that means to give up on our mokopuna and to give up, and I just kind of refuse to do that. I spoke at the Māori Women’s Welfare League hui this year about how the year I was born, Puao-te-Ata-tu came out and Moana Jackson’s He Whaipaanga Hou came out, that talked about all the shit realities that remain true today is terms of statistics and experiences of Māori at the hands of the state.
And how now I’m 31, and all of those remain true today. Nothing has changed. There was a bit of a wero for me cause I think it’s for us as Māori to challenge Māori. Not in front of Pākehā, though. To say, “what are we doing to change things for our people?” And then I had one whaea and she came up to me and said, she had been part of supporting Puao-te-Ata-tu and writing it, and then she was having a big tangi in her heart cause then she knew actually nothing has changed. Things have changed, but also nothing has changed, and what does that mean? She said, “we went from hope, which was Puao-te-Ata-tu, hope, okay we’re going to own what’s going on, New Zealand, and we’re going to listen and hear other solutions that are said out there that have never been honoured, and it’s now time to shift to hope which is expectation and action”.
You think about the All Blacks doing the haka and then they’re getting really, like, hope when they’re getting ready to go. So I hold on to the hope, we have active acts to do every day in our persona lives and our working spheres, our spheres of influence. And particularly Pākehā talking to Pākehā. I think I work with a great man, I work with a great Pākehā man, Judge Andrew Becroft at the Children’s Commission, and he says things that people like, the Leonie Pihamas have been saying forever, Annette Sykes has been saying forever, but different people listen when he talks.
Susie: That makes me really sad. And angry.
Julia: Both of those things. I mean, I always have this rage in my soul, but then that triggers me into action always, because I can’t accept this. My own personal life, I’m materially fine, I’m married to a beautiful intelligent Pākehā woman, I’m well supported by my whānau and the community that I exist in, and for as long as I suppose I’m breathing I have a real responsibility, as a mokopuna, I’m the reflection of my ancestors. And at the same time I’m also a tupuna. Which means we have mokopuna who are coming after us, that I’m responsible to. And that means that I will do everything that I can so that they can stand on our shoulders and be allowed to breathe more and just be. We want to be māori with a little m. Because māori means natural, and normal. They shouldn’t be political acts, just to find our language, to go to our marae. I mean, next weekend my mother and I are going up home and we’re going to get our moko kauae together. That was a right of our tupuna, and it is very political for me to be doing that, but that’s part of my responsibility as a tupuna as well, to my mokopuna that they will know that it’s very natural and okay to be Māori.
Susie: That’s pretty exciting.
Julia: Yeah, it is.
Susie: Why did you decide to do that and why now?
Julia: My wife probably gets quite hoha with me cause I have quite fast decision making. So I was quite colonised in my own thinking for moko kauae, was that “Oh, I don’t have the reo and can’t karanga, I’m not Māori enough”. That’s a colonised view on what that is now, because to say that you have to achieve these certain things is a very Pākehā meritocracy approach which is not actually the truth of our right to wear what is us. It’s a reflection of who you are on the inside. It’s just being brought to the light. And so I’ve had a few people say I should get it done at different points in time. But there’s nothing like going to another country and finding yourself. I was on my honeymoon in Mexico and then I received a message to say there’s a mokopapa happening up home, so I should get my kauae, and I was like, LOLs and told Emma my wife, someone said to do this. No, 100% not going to do it for the reasons that I’ve just said. And then she was like, okay, she went to sleep and then she woke up. And I was like, I’ve decided, I’m getting it done. Cause in that time I was like, what is the work that I do and I’m unapologetically Māori and I will create spaces that unapologetically allow us to be and just thrive. And who am I then to say that I will not take kauae because of this?
Susie: How do you go about choosing what you wanted to represent?
Julia: Well you trust in the tā moko, I suppose artist. I won’t see it until they put in on my face, cause they bring to light our korero and what it means. And that’s their gift. And if I was going into it being like, I want to make sure I look pretty or anything like that, then I’m not ready for it. I’ll hand over that trust and power to our tohunga to be able to bring to light who I am and what it means to me.
Susie: That sounds amazing, but it sounds like it’s quite a, not a leap, is it a leap, I don’t know?
Julia: Speak to my wife, she’ll be like, ohhhhh. Go from here to there. I’ve been talking about giving strength to our mokopuna to feel secure to be us. I went to my mum, cause I was like, I need you to come with me, of course. Then she talked about how she had a calling to get one but wasn’t brave enough to do it, and I knew then that there’s no way I’m going to do it without my mum. And I knew if I got it done, she said that will be enough, she’ll feel like, you’re wearing it for our whānau. And I was like, no, this is my right as it is your right, and you’re going to come and do it with me. So she leapt into that decision too, like I said earlier, I have this outrageous sense of entitlement to exist as who I am, in order that all the people in our lives can have that same entitlement. So I suppose it is a leap and quite a fast transition, but it’s just the timing, and I want to have babies soon. And I want my children to all only know me this way.
Susie: Tell me about the babies.
Julia: Well, me and Emma always wanted to be mamas I guess. And I think we’re ready for that. Or ready to start trying. Hopefully, all things being equal, my childbearing property’s all in check and so’s Emma’s. We also have a privilege of having two wombs to choose from, if things don’t work out. And it seems quite easy, you can go out and get ingredients from many places. But yeah, we’ve always known since we’ve been together that we want to have children. There’s probably been a period of time where there were other children in our lives, so we had to be more directly responsible for, cause whānau in prison, the rest of the whānau wrap around, and me and Emma were very much very active, and still remain active, but they’re all good thriving and we are ready to start trying. And I think part of being takatāpui in a gay relationship means you have to want these babies so much, we have to do it on purpose. We can’t accidentally get pregnant. So there’s a lot of aroha that goes into wanting these mokopuna that will come. But we’ll venture into the trying and the doing, we’ve got a good friend who’s from the right Coast, there’s only one coast in New Zealand as far as I’m concerned, it’s the East Coast North Island, and we can just try that, I was going to say ‘naturally’, but that involves turkey-baster stuff, and see how that goes for a while, and if it doesn’t work out then we’ll go from there.
Susie: Were you, I don’t know, you don’t choose who you fall in love with, but were you surprised that it was a white woman?
Julia: It’s kind of funny, cause I get hoha when Pākehā are all like, I’m married to a Māori, or I’ve got Māori children, therefore, like it’s used as a therefore I am not racist, or I’m aware, or I understand. But I always am like, given the work that I do and I’m all colonisation and structures blah blah, I do the same in reverse where I’m like, but I’m married to a Pākehā, so I’m all good.
Nah, I wasn’t surprised. I rarely get feelings for someone and Emma’s someone who my heart moved for very quickly and still does today of course, obviously. But she’s also a Pākehā, I mean, she can speak for herself, but she’s also a Pākehā who is one of those people who owns what it means to be Pākehā and be proud of her own identity and actually really proactive about understanding the benefits that she has as a Pākehā woman from the structures that came about through colonisation. She works in the field as well, representing Māori to reclaim back places, through a Pākehā system, she’s a lawyer, and also does Treaty education as well. She’s really proactive in applying her privilege.
We’re almost like the Te Tiriti couple. In our vows I was talking about aspiring to be the relationship and partnership that were the aspirations of both our tupuna. That our ancestors had dreams and aspirations of how that relationship would look and that’s what we committed to in our wedding, that we want to honour the vision of what Te Tiriti looked like in our own personal relationship.
Susie: Julia Whaipooti, chair of Just Speak and advisor to the Children’s Commissioner, Judge Andrew Becroft. And talk about walking the talk! Honouring the vision of Te Tiriti in her very marriage vows. Brilliant. Awesome stuff.
In that interview, Julia mentioned an expression of regret from the British High Commissioner for the Māori killed when James Cook arrived in 1796. In the next episode of Brazen we’ll hear from the British High Commissioner herself, Laura Clarke.
Laura: It was quite a personal thing. It was very much based on those relationships and on that very human need for acknowledgement for that story to be properly heard and acknowledged, and for that pain to be properly heard and acknowledged. And it was also absolutely the position of the British Government, that this was the right thing to do.
That’s in the next episode of Brazen and it’s out right now.
As always you can subscribe to Brazen on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts and do that if you haven’t already. Keep visiting the website – brazen.world – for more content.
Brazen is hosted by me, Susie Ferguson, and was created by me, Lou O’Reilly, Vic MacLennan and David Cormack.
Brazen is produced and edited by Melody Thomas, it’s engineered by William Saunders.
The theme is Be Who You Are by Edie.
The artwork is by Pepper Raccoon.
And all transcriptions are done by Emma Hart.
Ka kite ano.