Reflections on a day at Waitangi and 'the c word'

I went to Waitangi for Waitangi Day and it got me wondering about commemorations, celebrations, blandness and what's missing

The chap waiting in the Mr Whippy queue with me wearing his grandfather's Maori Warden helmet used the 'c' word. So did one of the aunties on the waka stage, as she introduced her kapahaka group. It's a word that seems to be edging its way into Waitangi Day events, but one that deserves a bit of thought. The 'c' word? "Celebration".

Waitangi Day has long been a day to focus on the troubled birth of our nation and the tensions and injustices that followed. We have been willing to talk about 'commemorations' on the day, because it has been a chance to ensure that we don't forget where we came from as Maori and Pakeha. But celebrate on Waitangi Day? That hasn't been the go for a long time.

At least since the Maori Renaissance of the early 1970s, the idea that we 'celebrate' on Waitangi Day has felt like ashes in the mouths of many. What is there to celebrate, when the ethnic inequality gaps in New Zealand are so pronounced? How do we celebrate amidst the cries of 'honour the treaty'? Are we celebrating the disproportionate Maori poverty rates or the lower life expectancy? 'Celebration' seemed tasteless.

Instead, Waitangi Day has for more than a generation now been a day of protest and often anger. A chance to educate and wrestle. It was been a day to hold our collective feet to the fire and ask if grievances of the past are being confronted and settled. 

Many New Zealanders - Pakeha in particular - have tired of the scrutiny. They have puposefully switched off from the idea of Waitangi Day as a time to think about our nationhood because it's uncomfortable to confront the past and difficult to know what to do with mistakes made long before you were born.

So many Kiwis will look at the relative peace breaking out at Waitangi over the past two years and breath a sigh of relief. 

But I'm not convinced. I'm with Peeni Henare when he frets the day may become too "bland". The MP was speaking in the context of relations between the upper and lower marae, but his point applies more widely.

That Waitangi Day acts as a stone in our national shoe is something I'm proud of as a New Zealander. Many countries use their national days to parade - sometimes literally - banal cultural myths or ceremonies of false unity. They trade in triumphalism and grandiosity. But here in New Zealand we dare to face down our failings and demand better. We don't always do it well; I don't take any pleasure from Prime Minister's being almost knocked form their feet or racist speeches from any side. But it is good that we are not complacent and smug. 

I don't worry too much about this. I'm sure that like any political flashpoint, issues will flare up again before long. I can't see blandness lasting. And that's good. 

The truth is we are still in no position to celebrate. As we know, too many New Zealand children learn too little of our history at school. It's great a consensus seems to be growing that New Zealand's history should play a greater part in our curriculum.

Indeed, when the Prime Minister can be caught out not being able to refer instantly to the articles of the treaty, it's a reminder how far we have to go in our commitment to understanding our history.

Maori still suffer low in our social statistics, te reo Maori is still under threat, we are still struggling where our two dominant cultures intersect. While we do better than most countries, we still have a way to go. So, no, not time to celebrate yet.

Having said that, I have one last thought to share after having spent the day in Waitangi yesterday. As noted at the top of this post, there was a mood of celebration there. At the risk of undermining my own argument, it was a pleasure to see and feel the good vibes on and around the treaty grounds as people revelled in our unique, combined cultures and the founding of this special nation. 

It is good to remember our successes alongside our failings. And it made me think that the pendulum will swing on this. Maybe it will be a decade or a generation. Maybe it will take longer. But Waitangi 2019 gave me pause to imagine a day when grievances have been redressed and ethnicity is not a marker for inequality. 

So what then? Waitangi Day at Waitangi is something like a giant A & P Show. It's craft stalls, music and a few speeches. Maybe Nga Puhi like it that way, I don't know. But I did wonder whether the day will some time soon need a new focal point. Not to replace the protest, but to give us something that captures what is good or at least distinctive about New Zealand.

Shoud our national day be something more than a craft fair and 'Northland's Got Talent'? I'm being slightly facetious. Some of the performances and the waka were amazing. But wandering around with my family, it was hard to know how to fill the day and what the focus should be. It was pleasant and relaxing and in its way very New Zealand. I saw Clarke Gayford and baby Neve strolling through the crowds, as well as any number of other politicians and notables. 

Maybe that low-keyness is part of its distinctive New Zealand-ness. But it still felt as if some special focal point was missing. One day, we'll have to figure out what that is.

But I'm chuffed I got up there to enjoy the day in the spot where two cultures came together and took a punt on each other. For all its flaws, the treaty and the promises made that day 179 years ago have given us a platform to build on. I felt the goodwill of that day again yesterday and I'd urge all New Zealanders to make the pilgrimage to Waitangi on Waitangi Day, some time in their lives. 

It's a place and a story we should all hold dear.