By Roger Childs

Whatever people’s ethnicity, Waitangi Day is for all New Zealanders. In 2023, it marks the 183rd anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, sometimes called “our founding document”.  This agreement guaranteed certain rights to all people living in the country at the time, both the natives (later called Maori), and recent settlers, in exchange for British sovereignty. 

Unfortunately there have been incidents in the past, where the formalities at Waitangi have been marred by protests, political grandstanding and the jostling of dignitaries. 

February 6 should be a day when we celebrate unity in diversity, and media reports should be about people getting together in positive ways in our multi-cultural society. This is what the Canadians and Australians do on their national days.

Bicultural to multicultural

In 1840 New Zealand was a thinly populated country with peoples from two cultures:

  • descendants of Polynesian migrants who began arriving a few centuries before
  • settlers of European origin, mainly from Britain, New South Wales, Europe and the United States.

Today we are a cosmopolitan society with citizens from almost every cultural and national group on the planet. So the biculturalism of 183 years ago has given way to a rich tapestry of ethnic influences in the 21st century. 

Whatever their origins, all the people of New Zealand are equally important and Waitangi Day should celebrate our diversity and the cultural mix in our society. 

What the Treaty (Te Tiriti) said

“Treaty obligations” is a phrase that slips easily off the tongue and the pen, and various claims are consequently made. However, in a recent letter to the Dominion Post the writer commented everyone needs to “read the Treaty fairly” before claiming anything. 

In Article 1 of Te Tiriti, the chiefs of New Zealand granted sovereignty to Queen Victoria and her heirs forever. This undertaking was later endorsed by over 100 chiefs at the Kohimarama Conference in 1860. 

In the second article the chiefs and tribes, and all the people of New Zealand — nga tangata katoa o Nu Tirani – were guaranteed full possession of their lands, dwellings and all their property. There was no mention of Fisheries or Forests. 

Article 3 was a deal – in return for granting Queen Victoria sovereignty over Nu Tirani, all the people of New Zealand were given “the rights and privileges of British subjects”. The natives, later called Maori, were thus given equal privileges, but not special rights.

It was all very straight-forward with no mention of a partnership, principles or co-governance. It is crucial for politicians, and anyone making claims about what the Treaty promised, to link their ideas to one or more of the Articles. 

A mural in the Tauranga Art Gallery.