Sunday Panel: What should we do about our colonial statues?

Race Relations Commissioner Meng Foon has issued a "plea to fellow New Zealanders to take a pause" on acts of vandalism on monuments linked to the country's legacy of colonisation.

A Captain Cook statue in Gisborne was defaced overnight Friday, and there have also been calls for place names to be changed, amid a global rallying cry against racism and oppression sparked by the Black Lives Matter movement and the death of African American George Floyd at the hands of a white police officer.

This week Hamilton City Council organised the removal of a statue of British army captain and city namesake John Hamilton, after a formal request from the Waikato-Tainui iwi and a threat by Huntly kaumatua Taitimu Maipi to remove it himself. The iwi have also renewed calls for the city to adopt the original name, Kirikiriroa.

Hamilton killed Māori in the Waikato land war and never set foot in the city that takes his name.

Green MP Golriz Ghahraman told Newshub Nation yesterday statues which memorialised colonial figures should be removed rather than edited to add context.

And Rangatahi Māori and Wellington man Safari Hynes called for his city's council to remove statues and street names glorifying colonisers. Councillors said there needed to be a clear call from the community before action was taken.

Foon said conversations were needed before action.

"I truly believe we need to have our local debates regarding the various monuments and place names … it's a fair call that some people are moved by the movement of pulling down statues, calling for this and that, so I'm saying pause and have a chat to organise meaningful meetings with your local councils and your government people."

He understood the anger. He'd heard the same from some New Zealand Chinese people over monuments of Richard Seddon.

An online campaign was launched yesterday to pull down Parliament's statue of the former Premier, accusing Seddon of being a "notorious autocrat, imperialist and racist".

Seddon likened Chinese people to monkeys, Foon said.

But he didn't want the statue taken down.

"Some New Zealand Chinese people are quite angry … [but] the majority of us say 'let that be a reminder that that sort of stuff shall not happen again'.

"History, it is what it is. Good, bad and ugly, but I think it's a good impetus for our country to learn our history. Like the Prime Minister said, 2021 all schools shall be learning our history."

The defaced statue of Captain Cook was on a co-managed walkway which told the stories of Māori and Europeans, Foon, a former longtime mayor of Gisborne, said.

"We worked with … iwi and we agreed on a position [for the stories]."

In the incident overnight on Friday the 20-year-old statue had swastikas sprayed on it, along with messages, including "Black Lives Matter and so do Māori" and "Take this racist headstone of my people down before I do".

Cook's legacy has been divisive in the town, with the statue previously graffitied in July.

Another Cook statue was removed from Kaiti Hill - sacred to Ngāti Oneone - last year.

The explorer's crew killed nine iwi members from Ngāti Oneone after a misunderstanding when the Endeavour's crew first made landfall in Poverty Bay 250 years ago.

Meanwhile, a children's production of the popular musical Hairspray has been cancelled amid a race row and allegations of "cyberbullying, threats and harassing behaviour".

The Northern School of the Performing Arts, based on Auckland's North Shore, had been working on presenting a performance of the show which is set in the US city of Baltimore during the segregated 1960s.

But the school faced criticism that the cast was not sufficiently ethnically diverse - with only six people of colour in a cast of 50 - and the show was cancelled.

Auckland actress and influencer Sabby Jey, whose parents came to New Zealand as refugees from Sri Lanka, says she contacted the school to ask them to increase the number of people of colour in the cast after a friend made a similar plea and was met with what Jey described as a "tone deaf, privileged" response.

The Northern School of Performing Arts declined to comment, with a spokesperson telling the Herald the school would issue a statement next week and had their own "story to tell".


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