Justice Joe Williams on te reo Māori, and synthesising Aotearoa law
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Supreme Court Justice Joe Williams in his chambers. Photo: Rosa Woods

It’s a personal portrait: a portrait of a nation, too. To start with, just his words:

‘’As a child, I was raised with my cousins: my kuia, koroua brought up a whole generation of us ... I was raised with my cousins as if they were my brothers and sisters. And I was very aware of the fact that we were not treated the same as my Pākehā peers.

It was very obvious to me from a young age, that being brown was not a good thing.

There were small things. You walk into a shop – they watch you. We would go to a place to buy something significant: Like a piece of furniture, not just the dairy, and I was just a little kid, 10 or 11, something like that, and I noticed the way people who worked in the shop treated us, compared with others.

This is as a child ... I could just tell, we all could.

I think it internalised within me the idea that I wasn’t much good, and that if I needed to be much good I needed to be different to what I was. I needed to minimise my upbringing, and maximise the vanilla-isation of my education.

My home was my home, a very Māori, poor home. My kuia and koroua, by the time I was 10 they were pensioners, almost no money. So my home was a railway station of relations and all those sorts of things, and no money. Whereas, because I was a bright kid, my peers were kind of lower middle class white kids. And they smelt like success – and they [my whānau] didn’t.

And to a kid growing up it was as obvious as hell.

And, so I kind of tried to fit and I couldn’t, and that was very difficult. I got a scholarship to go to Lindisfarne College in Hastings ... and that was worse, because you were with the doctors’ and dentists’ and lawyers' sons, and farmers' sons and so on, and still, home was a railway station. Poor and hard.

And every minute of every day you got reminded that that’s success, and that’s not.’’

The Supreme Court building in Wellington.
The Supreme Court building in Wellington. (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

Supreme Court Justice Joe Williams grew up aware of the inherent conflicts within Project Aotearoa, our growing nation, every day.

He hails from an iwi called Ngāti Pūkenga. It was once described, he says with a smile, as a ‘’small but pugnacious tribe’’, by a native land court judge in the 1870s.

I asked him about the integration of Māori kaupapa, tikanga, into the modern legal system. Then I asked about te reo Māori – how it felt gaining fluency at university.

Of course as the Māori son of a farm labourer myself, who will hopefully never set foot on a farm again, I should have known the second question is what makes sense of the first.

To me, the need to reconcile competing worlds – and, yes, racism – plays out at a personal level, as it plays out between people, and even within the law itself.

Justice Joe Williams at the Supreme Court building in Wellington.
Justice Joe Williams at the Supreme Court building in Wellington. (Photo: Rosa Woods)

Justice Williams was raised by his great uncle and great aunt, who moved to Hastings to work at a freezing works before he was born.

His great uncle was a fluent speaker of Māori, but didn’t use it much. “He belonged to that generation that believed if you want to get on, you need to be as Pākehā as you can, because his experience as a Māori from the bush, was that this was a handicap, not an advantage.”

It was not till Williams went to Victoria University in the early 80s that he decided to study Māori – then law.

“I learned the reo out of joy for the world finally making sense. And I learned the law out of optimism that if it was the agent for the destruction of my koroua’s mana then it equally could be the agent for the reconstruction of the mana of his mokopuna and great mokopuna, and that is how I get here, really.”

We still have work to do for Māori people within the justice system, Justice Joe Williams says.
We still have work to do for Māori people within the justice system, Justice Joe Williams says. (Photo: Rosa Woods)

Justice Williams was appointed to the Supreme Court in 2019, the first Māori person to sit there.

We used to think our law was a modern antipodean version of laws transported here in 1840 – what he calls “Cook’s law”.

“But that doesn’t really wash any more, because Kupe’s law has walked into the room.”

Kupe was the explorer who many iwi say discovered Aotearoa.

Cook’s system, Justice Williams says, is based on the idea of “the dignity and autonomy of the individual”. A person’s relationship with the planet is expressed in terms of property rights, and their economic and social well-being are controlled by the law of contract.

Tikanga Māori would at first glance seem to be the opposite, he says.

“It does recognise the dignity and autonomy of the individual. But only as part of a group.”

It emphasises communitarian values – called whanaungatanga, the law of kinship, so that rights and obligations are defined by virtue of blood relationships, he says. This whanaungatanga extends to the world – to rivers and the land.

The difference between property rights in a river, and kinship with a river, is that one entitles you to use it up, unless there's a parliamentary law that says you can’t; the other imposes obligations because it’s your relation.

Justice Williams says there is danger in an approach that only considers property rights, individuality-above-all, and contract-controlled relationships.

But the legal system doesn’t necessarily have to be binary, he says. The tikanga approach has started to capture people’s interest in Aotearoa.

“Interestingly, I think where we’re getting to is that tikanga appears to be civilising the more barbaric aspects of the individualisation of the Enlightenment. Put it that way.”

The challenge is to “integrate, to synthesise, to weave, the best of both of these two systems into something that is bigger and better than each individually”.

Nowadays there is almost no Government operation that doesn’t have a Māori aspect to it, in which tikanga Māori are drawn into its operation.

Justice Williams says he understands there is now a proposal for mainstream universities to include compulsory tikanga education in their law degree, and a separate Māori law degree.

His sense is that the majority of students at Waikato now are Māori, and they make up “maybe 20 per cent, 25 per cent” at Auckland and Victoria.

The growing inclusion of tikanga Māori into law didn’t happen through any revolutionary means, he says.

“It’s walked into the room because Parliament has said so ... it’s extraordinarily difficult to be an effective lawyer these days if you don’t have some grounding in the basics of tikanga.”

Judges themselves “don’t want to be the instrument of racial oppression”.

“They don’t.”

However, the situation is still pretty grim for Māori and the law, he says. “There are still, as you know, far too many Māori going through as clients of the criminal justice system or the child welfare system.’’

To “pick up those pieces and glue them back together into some sort of semblance of cohesion” is not going to happen overnight.

Part of that is mainstreaming the idea that the reo is something for everyone, he says. Something that everyone can be proud of.

The language makes you a better person, he says, and it’s something you should be proud of – not something you should shed.

 

Source: Stuff NZ