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Govt apologises for dawn raids in historic three-hour ceremony

Auckland’s Town Hall today was filled with song, “healing”, a recognition of the injustice of the dawn raids that targeted Pasifika in New Zealand, and a look ahead to the future. 

The Government formally apologises for the dawn raids of the 1970s. Source: 1 NEWS

The three-hour ceremony, where the Government offered its "formal and unreserved apology" for the dawn raids, was highly emotional, spiritual, and symbolic, with strong Tongan and Samoan influences. 

As the crowd of hundreds settled in, emcees Marama T-Pole and John Pulu told the audience the programme could bring up painful memories of the past. People in distinctive shirts would be on Queen Street, ready to speak to anyone who needed it, they said. 

A Government delegation arrived shortly after 3pm. The group included Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Minister for Pacific Peoples Aupito William Sio. Greeted by Ngāti Whātua and Niuean group Ponataki e Atu Toa, the group walked, heads down, into the main hall. 

The sound of a dawn raid then boomed over the hall’s speakers — the rapping at a door, babies crying, shouts, police dogs barking. The delegation looked on silently. 

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The Prime Minister took part in a modified version of Ifoga. Source: 1 NEWS

Labour Party Ministers and MPs, and Pasifika community representatives who were affected by the dawn raids, carried out a modified ifoga. The traditional Samoan ceremony signals the asking or receiving of forgiveness. Ardern was motionless as she was covered in a traditional mat. She was embraced by the community representatives as it was removed. 

“I stand before you as a symbol of the Crown that wronged you nearly 50 years ago," Ardern said in her opening remarks. Many in the crowd could be seen wiping away tears. 

"Pacific people are an integral part of Aotearoa's cultural and social fabric, and are active contributors to our economic success. 

“However, in the multiple chapters of Pacific people's story in New Zealand. The chapter of the dawn raids stands out as one that continues to cast a long shadow."

The apology was followed by responses from community representatives.

Princess Mele Siu'ilikutapu Kalaniuvalu Fotofili of the Kingdom of Tonga called the dawn raids “racist and unjust” because it targeted her people “and brown-coloured people at the time”. 

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Princess Mele Siu'ilikutapu addressed Jacinda Ardern during today’s formal apology event for the dawn raids. Source: 1 NEWS

The princess said the dawn raids would haunt her community for years to come “if we are not going to do the right thing”. She joked her tears went with her makeup. 

The crowd giggled as she acknowledged some members of her community “were on the wrong side of the law” at times. But, that didn’t justify the “unleashing” of dogs or the “extreme measures” against Pasifika, she added. 

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Tongan princess in tears as she accepts formal dawn raids apology

The princess said she accepted the Government’s apology, that it would begin a "healing process" for Pasifika, then paused. She continued with “however”, earning another laugh from the crowd, and said a “more complete” apology would have been for the Government to meet the immigration needs of her community. The suggestion was met with claps throughout the room.

Samoan language teacher Toesulu Brown, representing her community, said the dawn raids didn’t define Pasifika. 

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Brown said singing Lo Ta Nu'u would help Samoans gathered for the formal apology to think of Samoa. Source: 1 NEWS

“In order to look forward, we must acknowledge and look to our past,” Brown said.

“As a community, we must endeavour to ensure our young people thrive and prosper through an education system that recognises Pacific cultures.” 

When Polynesian Panther Alec Toleafoa spoke, he joked it was “rare to have this many Panthers together and not protesting”. He was joined at the ceremony by prominent members of the activist group, including Melanie Anae, Tigilau Ness, and honorary Panther Pauline (Vaeluaga) Smith.

Toleafoa stressed the importance of education. 

Gifts from the Government were included with the apology: $2.1 million in academic and vocational scholarships for Pacific communities; $1 million in Manaaki New Zealand Short Term Scholarship Training Courses for delegates from Samoa, Tonga, Fiji and Tuvalu; and resources made available to schools and kura who choose to teach the history of the dawn raids.

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Toleafoa said there was now a generation of young Pasifika “who have simply no knowledge of this part of our history”. 

“We have sought these educational outcomes because that’s why our parents migrated here. Education is essential to our survival in this new land, as water is to life.”

After each speech came sweet and warm harmonies that reverberated throughout the room. 

Speaking to media after the ceremony, Sio declared: “It’s done.” 

“But, this is the beginning of deeper, longer conversations,” he added.

Sio said the Government would make separate decisions about immigration at a later time because “this is not the day for them”. 

He said the Government was continuing its “immigration reset”. 

“I noted that when the speakers today made reference [to immigration] that the Minister of Immigration [Kris Faafoi] was smiling. He heard that message.”

Further announcements about the scholarships would also be made this week, Sio said. 

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Pacific people were encouraged to come here to fill labour shortages but were subjected to raids on homes. Source: 1 NEWS

What happened during the dawn raids era? 

New Zealand was enjoying the spoils of its post-World War II boom. The economy was growing, fuelled largely by exports of meat, wool, and dairy.

With the growth came labour shortages, so the Government encouraged people from the Pacific to come to New Zealand to fill the gap. The need for cheap labour was so great that authorities turned a blind eye to those who stayed beyond their visas or were working illegally on tourist visas. 

By the mid 1970s, there were more than 60,000 Pasifika in Aotearoa. 

The Government delegation makes its way down the steps of the Auckland Town Hall ahead of the state's apology for the dawn raids. Source: 1 NEWS

Michelle Schaaf, an Otago University lecturer of Pacific Islands Studies, explained that the relationship between Pacific Islanders and New Zealand, at first, “appeared to be mutually beneficial”. 

“However, a new reality quickly emerged. The Pacific Island immigrants did the jobs palagi New Zealanders no longer wished to do or had been educated beyond processing, cleaning, factory work, shift work, [and] assembly-line production.” 

The work often involved long hours in unpleasant conditions, Schaaf said.

The 1970s saw the country dip into an economic recession. The downturn was spurred along by the collapse of wool prices in 1966, the first oil shock of 1973, and Britain’s joining of the European Economic Community (now the European Union). Unemployment was high.

“With the downturn in the economy, there was a glut of labourers. To appease the public at the time, Pacific Islanders were targeted as scapegoats,” Schaaf said. 

That scapegoating was true of both Labour and National Governments at the time. The Labour Government amended the Immigration Act in 1968 to allow those overstaying their work permits to be deported. Police were also allowed to ask people to produce documentation on the spot that confirmed they were legally allowed to be in the country. 

The changes to the law disproportionately targeted Pasifika, Māori, and people of colour. Despite the bulk of overstayers in New Zealand coming from Europe and North America at the time, they didn’t face the same scrutiny.

By 1974, Immigration Minister Fraser Colman had called for the dawn raids to stop, and Prime Minister Norman Kirk introduced a temporary amnesty for illegal immigrants. By 1975, however, dawn raids resumed. 

After Kirk’s death, then-National leader Robert Muldoon tapped into nationalist and populist sentiment in the lead up to his election as Prime Minister in 1975. A three-month amnesty was called in April 1976, and the dawn raids resumed in October 1976. 

A number of factors resulted in dawn raids winding down in 1977.

Schaff has been teaching students about the dawn raids for a decade. In that time, she said there had been “little change” in the level of awareness about what had happened because it wasn’t taught at school. 

“I can only hope to be optimistic that dawn raids will be studied and cemented into the New Zealand secondary school curriculum,” she said. 

She said the apology would begin a healing journey of talanoa for the Pacific community. 

“There is a need for the implementation of meaningful action to accompany the Government's promised apology for the dawn raids. For example, the use of an 'overstayer amnesty' as a way forward and an appropriate gesture of goodwill.

“This is a complex issue that would require meaningful engagement between the Government and Pacific communities.”