They say you can take the child out of the village, but you can’t take the village out of the child.
I have been experiencing in my own life something that seems to confirm that old saw, as I observe, with, I have to confess, some unexpected trickles of pride, the behaviour of the New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in her perfect reaction to the tragedy that has befallen the Muslim community in her country.
The last photo I saw of her was as she clasped to her a distressed young woman, into whose ear she was whispering supportive things. It brought a brief trickle of tears to my eyes, just seeing such an ordinary, non-hierarchical action of support, completely confirming that she meant it when she told the Muslim population in her first reaction to the tragedy, “You are us.”
I approach this subject from an odd position, because I left my home country at the age of 22 in 1950, and have never really had a moment since in which I pined for its security, or wanted to rejoin it. Even when I went back, wife and four children along, in 1975 after 25 years of absence, years during which I never made any effort of any kind to seek out my fellow-countrymen, the choice was mostly my wife’s, and I was simply a more or less willing participant. When I made the decision to return to Canada the following year, my unfortunate family was destined to follow me along.
During all those many years of my life --- by this time I am well into middle age --- I can never remember harbouring any strong feelings of nationalism either towards my home country or Canada, for that matter. (It took me until the early 1990s, when I realized it was possible to see All Black Rugby games on our television screens, that I evinced even a moderate reviving interest in New Zealand.) I had always been a fanatic All Black supporter as a kid, having grown up with pictures of their various teams since 1905 plastered all over my childish bedroom walls: and I slotted back into that posture immediately as I observed anew the titanic Rugby battles against South Africa, Wales --- always our two greatest traditional opponents --- and even of England, and Australia, which, years before, we had never taken seriously in Rugby, although they were always predominant in tennis, cricket, athletics and many other sports, as they still are.
Even my return to New Zealand in the 1970s left me with a feeling of disaffection for the place. I had two black children in my family, of African and West Indian origin, and two white, and I was outraged to find that to get the black children into the country I had to fill in a special form for them since they were of non-Caucasian origin. I had always carried with me the myth that New Zealand had behaved better towards their indigenous Maoris than other countries had to theirs, so I was bitterly disappointed at this official recognition that it weren't necessarily so, that New Zealand laws were not all that non-racist.
There had been, at that time, considerable emigration to New Zealand from the Pacific Islands --- there has since been large immigration from other parts of Asia --- who were admitted when their labour was needed, and sometimes allowed to stay beyond their work permits, if the labour situation favoured their stay. The journey from the highly-structured, tightly-controlled environment of a Samoan village to the free and easy life in New Zealand was an immense challenge for these islanders. Typically, many young men took to heavy drinking, and some New Zealanders of my acquaintance began to dismiss them as drunken bums just as had happened to my certain knowledge in Canada.
It took some years for the more responsible members of these Island societies to gain the upper hand, and stabilize their situations. However, once the labour situation turned against them, they became known as “overstayers”, and the last thing I remember before I left New Zealand in 1976 was that a massive round-up of “overstayers” with a view to deporting them back to their home islands, had resulted in the mistaken arrest of many native Maoris. Whereupon, the Chief of Police announced to the world that anyone who didn’t look like a normal New Zealander --- translation, an ordinary, good-bloke white Kiwi --- should be carrying his papers at all times. I felt that as a bitter renunciation of all my previous opinions that the country of my birth abhorred racism.
But that is not the final verdict, as Ms. Ardern’s recent behaviour shows. Immense changes have taken place in the condition of the Maori and their language since the 1970s, those changes mostly initiated by the occasional Labour Party governments. I had grown up under Labour. But Sid Holland, a dyed-in-the-wool Conservative, was elected in 1949, in an election precipitated by an act of apostasy by the Labour Prime Minister Peter Fraser, who having been in jail when first elected in 1918 for opposing conscription in the First World War, had returned from an Imperial Defence Conference in London in 1949 under orders to introduce conscription against the common bugbear of the time, the Soviet menace. Disgust with this unconscionable action was what led to my quitting the country for good and all
I am able to judge Ms. Ardern against not only Holland, who immediately attacked unions (“industrial anarchy” he called it), and eliminated many public entities, and who thus began conservative control of the country for the next half century, with occasional brief intervals of Labour government.
Another conservative horror figure, Robert Muldoon was elected while I was living in New Zealand. Although I didn’t stay long under his imprimatur, I had the horrible feeling that the more obscene and disgraceful were the things he said, the more they were being mopped up appreciatively by many of those around me. He made no attempt to disguise his prejudices, and after signing the Gleneagles Agreement by which South Africa’s apartheid regime was banished from world sporting contacts, he nevertheless approved sporting visits to South Africa that were the direct cause of the African boycott of the 1976 Olympics. Undeterred, he allowed the visit of a South African Rugby team to New Zealand in 1981, a visit which all-but precipitated a civil war. Protesters turned up bearing French loaves and bicycle helmets as their attack and defence weapons, but were savagely beaten by police when they tried to prevent crowds from attending the games. As a final act, they bombed the last Test match in Auckland with bags of flour from the air. This heroic demonstration of defiance in New Zealand was one of the facts that eventually persuaded the South African leadership that they had become the polecats of the world, and changes were needed. Later Nelson Mandela affirmed how encouraged he and his imprisoned colleagues were by the reaction of such a huge part of the New Zealand population.
So, while I do support and am moved by Jacinda Ardern’s behaviour towards the targeted Muslim community, I am extremely glad the attack did not occur under the earlier reign of the more imperial/colonialist leaders who have led New Zealand from time to time.
For myself, although I am not at all sympathetic to any religion, I remember writing as long ago as the 1970s that “that mosque at the end of the road” is a Canadian mosque, and must be treated as such.