How Kiwis Put Canadians to Shame

It’s not just in rugby that Kiwis put Canadians to shame. In fact, if it were just that, as a Canadian I wouldn’t much care. They can have their haka and keep their rugby pride. They make it look good — terribly good.

Looking good, boys (Lions v All Blacks, 2017)

Unfortunately though, Kiwis put us to shame in another, more important way.

And her name is… Inclusion.

Not long ago, I relocated to Auckland, the cultural capital of New Zealand, where my sister has been living for over a decade and is now, among other things, busy raising half-Kiwis.

Kids, that is.

In visiting her over the years before my big move down, I was always struck by the local Maori culture. Meaning, that I actually saw it. That I actually interacted with it. And I don’t mean that in the sense of museums and history books — although, that does happen — but more importantly, I mean that in terms of interacting with actual Maori culture on the streets, in the bars, on television, and as importantly, in the movies.

Turn on the tele here and there’s a whole channel dedicated to Maori audiences, the appropriately named Maori Television Channel. And after binging out on the deceptively named “Find me a Maori Bride” (I had expected to find a show akin to “The Bachelor”, dead wrong), I can even say they have as much quality on their channel as you would expect to find on any good CBC channel back home.

What’s more is that on public, national TV, Spotify now has a series of hip commercials featuring Maori actors. They look cool. They make me want to subscribe to Spotify (irregardless of the fact that I’m already subscribed).

Forgive me if this is coming off as slightly fetishistic. Although maybe it shouldn’t come as such a surprise given the exotification of Maori culture the world over, from Disney’s 2016 animated feature Moana (Maori word for “sea”), to the countless viral videos of the haka, a Maori traditional war cry (or as most of us would know it, the All Blacks rugby dance).

Here, as in back home, Maori culture is just cool.

Forgive me also though if this is coming off as slightly naive. Back home in Canada I rarely if ever interacted with indigenous culture. Seeing it here, front and centre in everyday life is, well… abnormal to my very Canadian metrics of normal. As someone who has lived in both Toronto and Ottawa — native names derived from the Mohawk and Ottawa tribes respectively (facts I had to Google because pathetically I couldn’t remember) — there is nothing ‘cool’ in our homeland about the portrayal of First Nations people of Canada.

In a MacLean’s article published this past June, Scott Gilmore went so far as to call the First Nations the “other Canada”. A place where the incarceration rate is the highest in the world.

The highest in the world.

It takes a moment to let that sink in… .

“You don’t see it,” writes Gilmore of that other side, “You don’t know anyone who lives there. You rarely hear about it on the news.”

Meanwhile, back in New Zealand my three-year-old nephew (very ‘white’ by every measure) comes home one night from day-care with his face painted in ta moko — traditional Maori tattooing. He then proceeds to shout some Maori words I can’t make sense of.

What I will come to learn is that this isn’t a one-off. In fact, thanks to his Maori daycare workers, he regularly comes home with ta moko and Maori words added to his vocabulary. And if it’s not the daycare workers submersing him in the culture, he’s also absorbing Maori legends and creation myths from the cartoons he streams from Youtube. His current obsession? Maui the mythical hero who slowed the sun down and gave us summer.

The point is, Maori culture and lore is all around him. Just as it is in every Kiwi child’s education and upbringing from day one.

Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t to say that the Maori are hardship-free in New Zealand. Much like the First Nation peoples of Canada, Maori have a higher mortality rate, are overly-represented in prisons, and have fewer educational qualifications as compared to non-Maoris. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done to bridge those gaps, both in terms of dismantling certain discriminations and increasing key opportunities.

That said, I can’t help but think that when my nephew greets me with the hongi — a traditional Maori greeting — where he presses his nose to mine in an exchange of ha (breath of life), that the indigenous peoples here have a chance much better than those in Canada. Simply because they are acknowledged, relevant, and accepted.

I look at my nephew as he sticks his tongue out at me in a Maori war cry, ta moko paint smeared across his face, and I realise that this three-year-old already knows and is more connected to the indigenous culture of his home, New Zealand, than I — a nearly thirty-year-old Canadian — am with our First Nations even despite years of education in the very systems and institutions that are meant to teach us about one another.

Or, was that not what our education was for? Perhaps we’ve been going more for oblivion. Perhaps it is in this state of oblivion that we Canadians can more easily mock shock at the racialised tensions just south of our border. Holding our heads high.

Oh, Canada.