The “tribunal” that revisited New Zealand’s colonial history and unified the country


One hundred and fifty years ago, it was strictly forbidden to teach the Maori language in New Zealand schools; today the reo maori is the second official language of the country, it is displayed on the pediments of administrations and has become a source of national pride. In New Zealand, Maori culture has come a long way; stifled by more than a century of British hegemony established by the Treaty of Waitangi of 1840, it was not until the end of the 20th centurye century that it was able to regain its place in the country, without violence or combat.

The ongoing process in New Zealand has allowed a way out of a troubled past

This major decision came from a standing commission of inquiry opened in 1975, the Waitangi Tribunal. Thanks to this revisiting of the national narrative, the country has asserted itself as truly bicultural; At a time when the colonial or slavery past questions and shakes many Western countries, the process underway for forty-five years in New Zealand has allowed a way out of a troubled past.

It therefore began in 1840, when, barely installed on this Pacific archipelago, British colonists sent by London signed with five hundred Maori chiefs the founding text of the country: the Treaty of Waitangi. While its interpretation is the subject of much controversy, the agreement broadly establishes a British authority, bound to protect Indigenous powers and traditions. A symbolic text, which will prevent the Maori from near-genocide of other indigenous peoples (such as the Australian aborigines), but will not prevent colonial domination.

A story “that is part of the decor”

From the 1960s, after two world wars in which they took part, the Maoris “Start to claim their culture, their language and their land, and this is having a snowball effect in a global context of awakening indigenous identities”, says Francine Tolron, one of the few French specialists in New Zealand, a retired university professor. With these ever-growing demands and a historic march to the capital, Wellington, the Labor government acts to create the Waitangi Tribunal. Its aim: to establish the State’s breaches of the promises of the Treaty of Waitangi by going back to its signature in 1840. A form of imprescriptibility of facts, like crimes against humanity in French law.

“The New Zealand political system has largely supported this change,” says Michael Belgrave

A long process then begins: complaints lodged – by Maoris only – historical, documented, precise investigations which, after years, lead to recommendations for concrete action for the government. The latter then takes the hand and negotiates with the tribes returns of land, compensation, legislative changes. “The New Zealand political system has largely supported this change”Conservatives and Labor alike, notes Michael Belgrave, historian at Massey University in New Zealand and former expert for the tribunal.

However, a nation’s work on itself was not easy. During these years, “The New Zealanders fought back, remembers Francine Tolron. I experienced that period in the 1990s when there was general guilt among the Pakeha [les non-Maoris], who became aware, thanks to many great historians, of the horrors committed during colonization ”.

From now on, “For most New Zealanders, [cette histoire-là] is part of the decor ”, Michael Belgrave notes. The court’s work was the driving force behind a revival of Maori culture, now ubiquitous in the country, but the model was never really exported across borders, as Francine Tolron laments: “New Zealanders are very self-centered, very insular. This country is a spearhead on these issues, but they do not publicize their actions, which is a shame. “

Two billion dollars transferred

In other British colonies, groups carried out similar work. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, set up by Nelson Mandela in 1995 in South Africa, “Was part of this approach”, notes Francine Tolron, author of The Idea of ​​Reconciliation in Multicultural Commonwealth Societies (Armand Colin, 2002). For her, it is obvious: it would be beneficial to draw inspiration from New Zealand “Wherever there is a need to lay bare the wounds of the past”, including in France.

The process did not end with apologies or symbolic acts

“There were similar things in the United States, Canada, Australia, but on tight skills. None had the importance of the court, underlines, for his part, Michael Belgrave. So it was also much more efficient. ” Especially since the process did not end with apologies or symbolic acts. “In about thirty years, something like $ 2 billion [1,1 milliard d’euros aujourd’hui] have been transferred “, continues the historian.

South of Auckland, the country’s largest city, the Great Plains of Waikato have been returned to local tribes more than a hundred years after being despoiled, and the local university has become a tenant. According to another report, the Maori were able to take control of about a third of the fishing industry.

Despite all these actions, the Maori of New Zealand, who today constitute a growing part of the population (16.5% in 2018), remain on the margins of society: they are poorer, in poorer health, less graduates. ” Change [introduit par le tribunal] was positive, greets Michael Belgrave. But until we see a significant change in the economic and social situation of the Maori, we have no reason to congratulate ourselves. There is still a lot to do. “