Supreme Court's first Māori judge speaks on knighthood, ongoing Māori injustices

Sir Joe Williams, Aotearoa's first Supreme Court justice of Māori heritage, has spoken out against the ongoing injustices faced by Māori following his knighthood over the weekend.  

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Sir Joe spoke to Breakfast about his long and illustrious career. Source: Breakfast

Sir Joe returned to his tūrangawaewae in the tiny Coromandel town of Manaia to be knighted by Governor-General Dame Patsy Reddy on Saturday.

He has had a long and illustrious career since receiving his master's of law degree with first class honours from British Columbia, which has seen him become the youngest judge of the Māori Land Court, the first Te Reo Māori speaker on the Court of Appeals and the first Māori judge appointed to the Supreme Court.

Sir Joe told Breakfast today he came from a humble upbringing in the Hawke's Bay, where he was raised alongside his cousins by his great-uncle and great-aunt, who he called Mum and Dad.

He recalled the moment he told his dad — a slaughterhouse worker and a native speaker of Māori — he was going to university.

"He belonged to the generation that, sadly, felt that their culture was a handicap and so he deliberately did not teach us re reo," he explained.

"When I told him I was going to university — first of all to do a BA in Māori and then, later on, pick up law — you know what he said? 'Beautiful old fella,' he said, 'why don't you get a trade, boy?'

"I think they were kind of blown away by where it all went. They've both passed away now but it was certainly beyond what they had been thinking about — or anybody, really."

Sir Joe has humbly attributed his storied career to "luck".

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The unique event reflected the life of Sir Joe Williams. Source: 1 NEWS

"If I had been born 10 years earlier or 10 years later, my life trajectory would have been different," he explained.

"It's just that I was born at a time that when I came up, these issues were front and centre issues and that's just pure luck. So I'm not gonna blame it on any inherent talent at all, except the ability to scream into a microphone with a backing band behind me."

Sir Joe recorded '90s hit Maranga Ake Ai with his band Aotearoa as a call for Māori youth to take pride in their identity, explaining how the world "finally gave [his dad] permission to be the man he always was". 

"You could see the weight fall off his shoulders because for a lot of his life, he carried this kind of shame knowing that he was a second-class citizen, being treated as a second-class citizen and I know as a young boy, because I saw it and it was heartbreaking to watch," he said.

"Even as a little boy, I saw the way he was treated in official offices, stores and so on, the way my brother and sister were treated and I felt it keenly, which is one of the reasons I took the track that I did.

"This world that we're in now is infinitely different and infinitely better, both for Māori and for pākehā and for everybody else —wonderful whenua of ours."

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Aotearoa's first Māori Supreme Court judge returns to his tūrangawaewae to be knighted

Despite the gains that have been made, Sir Joe called it an "inevitable side effect of colonisation" that those he has faced in the docks in the District Court and High Court have been disproportionately Māori. The same situation can be seen in Australia, Canada and the US "for exactly the same reasons", he said.

"This is a long game and it starts with us having permission to be ourselves, it starts with Māori defendants — and there are far too many of them — seeing themselves on the bench."

He said when he switched from the chair of the Waitangi Tribunal to the High Court, the "only Māori he saw was called the defendant".

Sir Joe said he saw a noticeable change in the defendants when he greeted them in Māori, saying the "whole vibe of the trial would change, just with that simple affirmation".

"That ain't going to change the world — these are kind of grains of sand in every single one of them."