New Zealand: Decolonising education while remaining colonisers

New Zealand / August 11, 2021/By:  Alyssa Johnstone/Source:

New Zealand appears to be a nation at the forefront of post-colonial efforts to address the misdeeds of its past.

Its involvement in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People has inspired the Government to confront the need for structural changes and the recently mandated Aotearoa – New Zealand Histories Curriculum is just one example.

However, alongside the curriculum’s “woke” exterior lies a very real colonial present.

The new curriculum is a bold effort to unravel the tightly woven fabric of colonial education in our country. It asks educators to value mātauranga Māori (Māori knowledge) as we do European knowledge and world views, and to re-conceptualise what genuine Te Tiriti partnership should look like in education.

These efforts are not perfect by any means, and they have not been without criticism. I hate to add to what about-ism that graces nearly every initiative, but there is one glaring contradiction to the Government’s priorities, and that is our present relationships with Tokelau, the Cook Islands, Niue, and debatably the Chatham Islands.

The semantics of colonisation in the post-colonial world is incredibly complicated, namely because it has fallen out of fashion as the long term negatives remain so readily apparent.

New Zealand is one of less than ten countries in the world today to maintain economically and politically dependent, yet unequal, relationships with overseas territories.

These connections are now described with politically correct terms like “free association” and “in consultation with,” which combined mean something like “colonisation with permission.”

Some might say that Tokelau, Niue and the Cook Islands have opted to keep close ties with New Zealand on their own terms, but this is naive.

HMNZS WELLINGTON sailed for Tokelau and the Northern Cook Islands carrying enough doses of the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccines for the eligible population of Tokelau and Palmerston Island.
HMNZS WELLINGTON sailed for Tokelau and the Northern Cook Islands carrying enough doses of the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccines for the eligible population of Tokelau and Palmerston Island.

After all, colonial relationships were established in the best interests of the home country and very rarely was the standard of living equal, purposefully so some might say.

When these countries were given the option of full independence, they would have done so at the loss of their NZ citizenship and opportunities in New Zealand.

The inequality has been blatant in the Covid-era, first with the more than one year delay of a travel bubble with the Cook Islands, and second with a three-month delay of Covid-19 vaccines.

Cook Islanders are legally New Zealanders, and yet their access to our privilege is limited in practice. This is colonisation at work.

How can the Government create true partnership with Māori while maintaining inequality with our protectorates?

Covid-19 vaccination centre, Cook Islands Rarotonga.
Covid-19 vaccination centre, Cook Islands Rarotonga.

As much as New Zealand wants to be doing the right thing, it is more important that they are seen to be doing the right thing.

Keeping up appearances with the rest of the world has been the catalyst for the Government’s actions.

When the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was issued, New Zealand voted against it with Australia, Canada and the United States.

It took three years and the three hesitates getting on board for New Zealand to feel enough pressure to do the same.

New Zealand has yet to apologise, let alone acknowledge, the borderline genocidal wrongs Oranga Tamariki inflicted on Māori youth in the 1960s and 1970s, in order to avoid being seen as similar to those same three countries’ treatment of indigenous peoples.

It whispers vaguely of the slogans of clean, green New Zealand that began as a marketing tactic and became a national inside joke.

We pride ourselves on punching above our weight on the world stage. We constantly look for ways to stand out and reinforce our self-appointed uniqueness, which was all the more clear as we puffed out our proverbial chests with each overseas mention of our Covid-19 success.

And here we are at the cusp of a reckoning as a nation when we could create genuine, long-lasting change, which would serve as an example to other countries coming to grips with their own colonial pasts.

However, to do this, we need to confront our complete identity as a coloniser, it’s past and present, so that what we publish in curriculum documents isn’t just about appearances but about doing the right thing.

Alyssa Johnstone is the Year 11 Dean at Central Southland College Winton.


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Docente - Investigadora Educativa.
Doctora en Cs. de la Educación, Magíster en Desarrollo Curricular y Licenciada en Relaciones Industriales.

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New Zealand: Decolonising education while remaining colonisers – Sarraute Educación María Magdalena

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