Respecting Te Tiriti o Waitangi | Treaty of Waitangi

The Treaty of Waitangi is the founding document of New Zealand, named after the place in the Bay of Islands where it was first signed on 6 February 1840. It is an agreement entered into by representatives of the Crown and of Māori iwi (tribes) and hapū (sub-tribes). The Treaty was not drafted as a constitution or a statute.

WelCom May 2024

The Treaty of Waitangi is the founding document of New Zealand, named after the place in the Bay of Islands where it was first signed on 6 February 1840. It is an agreement entered into by representatives of the Crown and of Māori iwi (tribes) and hapū (sub-tribes). The Treaty was not drafted as a constitution or a statute. It was a broad statement of principles upon which the British officials and Māori chiefs made a political compact or covenant to found a nation state and build a government in New Zealand, to deal with pressing new circumstances. 

Among other things, the Treaty reflected Christian biblical values of justice, order, and human equality. Christian missionaries actively promoted the Treaty as a covenant between the British Crown and Māori: as an agreement that would benefit Māori and lay foundations for peace between settlers and Māori. Like many treaties, the Treaty is an exchange of promises between the parties to it.

Since 1840, there have been Christians who have challenged the British Crown and the Crown in New Zealand (the NZ Government) about actions that dishonour the Treaty.

In recent decades, many churches have made commitments to honour the Treaty and have spoken publicly about its importance to our nation.

After winning the election in October last year, the coalition government foreshadowed policies to roll back the use of Māori language and Māori-specific public services, and redefine the impact of the Treaty on the legal system.

On 7 February this year, the ACT Party launched an ‘information campaign’ in support of its contentious Treaty Principles Bill – pledging to ‘restore’ the meaning of the Treaty to ‘what was actually written and signed in 1840’.

Catholic Congregational Leaders alarmed at Treaty politicking 

The Catholic Church’s Congregational Leaders Conference of Aotearoa New Zealand issued the following statement on 3 April 2024. 

‘Te Tiriti o Waitangi was the foundational document of Aotearoa, with Bishop Pompallier present at the gathering. It had the flavour of a covenant, a sacred agreement. It was between the British Colonial Office, then, and the Government, today, and Māori. Any ongoing conversations today should involve members from both parties.

‘We, the Congregational Leaders Conference of Aotearoa New Zealand [CLCANZ], are alarmed at the rhetoric around curbing Māori language and attempting to re-write the principles of the Treaty.

‘This is not a time to remain silent and unmoved. This current coalition government appears to be continuing a litany of broken promises to Māori, the indigenous peoples of our country.

‘We stand in protest at the attitude of the present coalition government in disestablishing the bicultural relationship between Māori and the Crown, and destroying many efforts made over significant years. 

‘We commit ourselves to learning more about our responsibilities living in a bicultural milieu.’

Congregation of Our Lady of the Missions RNDM
Divine Word Missionaries SVD
Dominican Sisters OP
Franciscan Friars OFM
Little Sisters of the Assumption LSA
Marist Sisters SM
Ngā Whaea Atawhai o Aotearoa Sisters of Mercy of New Zealand RSM
Sisters of the Good Shepherd RGS
Society of St Columban SSC
Sisters of Compassion DOLC

As the sun rose, thousands attended the dawn service at Te Whare Runanga on the Waitangi Treaty Grounds, Waitangi Day, 6 February 2024. Photo: Newshub

Opinion: Christians concerned about honouring Te Tiriti 

Auckland-based Dr Susan Healy is Pākehā and a lay woman member of the Catholic Dominican family. She has a PhD in Māori Studies from the University of Auckland and is a researcher, writer and presenter on matters relating to the Treaty of Waitangi.

Dr Susan Healy

For many years, on Waitangi Day, the six o’clock TV news showed us dramatic images of protest action. Then, in recent years, everything seemed to quieten down. Now in 2024 with the election of the coalition government, the protest has come to the fore again, not with any ‘unseemly’ behaviour but with a show of force and intent that should speak to us all. 

The exceptional numbers at Waitangi this year followed the extraordinary response to King Tuheitia’s royal proclamation to hold a national hui in January. Beyond all expectations, ten thousand people came to the hui, which called for a unified Māori response to coalition policies that could reverse decades of hard-fought justice for Māori and the work done to honour Te Tiriti o Waitangi.

I believe these events signal a critical moment in our country’s history and we are challenged to respond to it. For those of us who are not Māori, various reactions are open to us: we can treat the issues with contempt or mild indifference; we can judge these are matters for Māori and not the rest of us; or we can sense there is something that goes to the heart of our integrity as a nation.

Importantly, we who are Catholic and Christian need to consider what our faith asks of us at this time.

In recent decades, our New Zealand Catholic Bishops have spoken consistently on these matters. Their fullest pronouncement was ‘A Statement on the Treaty of Waitangi in Today’s Perspective.’ Written in 1995, the statement is still very relevant. Addressing New Zealanders in general, the bishops said:

Treaty of Waitangi issues are not about party politics. They are about honouring with goodwill the covenant entered into by the Crown and Māori, on which this nation is founded. They are about the right of the first occupants to land, and a social and political organisation which would allow them to preserve their cultural identity. They are about a people still searching for the sovereignty guaranteed them 150 years ago.

A person is a person with tapu and mana only by reason of relationships with Atua (God), tangata (people) and whenua (land).

Rev Dr Henare Tate, thesis on Māori theology.

Let’s consider the implications of these words. The Treaty is a covenant between the Crown (effectively, the New Zealand Government) and Māori. A covenant involves a bond of respect and mutual accountability; it requires that both parties work things out together. As the bishops later say, ‘The indigenous people of our country, the Māori, deserve better than unilateral arrangements and imposed settlement’. The bishops were referring to the narrow and, in many ways, demeaning framework the Government had set for making reparations to Māori communities for the wrongs done to them by the Crown, a framework put in place with no input from Māori.

The bishops’ urging that there be genuine partnership between the Crown and Māori reflects papal teaching, which emphasises the importance of dialogue between states and indigenous peoples – a dialogue that shows commitment to healing, justice, and peace, while acknowledging historical wrongs and seeking a path toward reconciliation. In his encyclical Laudato si’, Pope Francis wrote, ‘It is essential to show special care for indigenous communities and their cultural traditions. They are not merely one minority among others but should be the principal dialogue partners.’1

Dialogue, of course, needs to be more than a pious idea. It must ensure indigenous communities are heard and part of decision making. We are closing our eyes to the colonial history of our country if we do not recognise that for too long one of the greatest wrongs to Māori communities has been their exclusion from places where official decisions are made. More recent moves like the establishment of Māori seats on local governing bodies have provided crucial steps towards the dialogue, healing and reconciliation that the Popes talk about. What is more, Māori representation on councils and boards has generally led to greater care for the natural environment, a matter of vital importance for us all. Sadly, this representation is now under threat.

Of the policies put forward by parties to the coalition government, probably the most concerning is ACT’s Treaty Principles Bill. While we haven’t seen the final version of this Bill, we have a fair idea of its content. The leaked version, which aligns with David Seymour’s rhetoric, interprets the Second Article of the treaty as: ‘The New Zealand Government will honour all New Zealanders in the chieftainship of their land and all their property.’ This is a travesty of the Treaty’s Second Article which guarantees that hapū (tribes), their rangatira (leaders) and all Māori will keep their full authority (te tino rangatiratanga) over their lands, settlements and all they value (taonga). In ACT’s proposed bill, the communal Treaty rights of the indigenous people of our country are made to disappear and are replaced by a pseudo-guarantee of individual property rights – a guarantee which is already solidly lodged in law.

ACT’s proposal is obviously of deep concern to Māori and should be of concern to us as Catholics. For a start, it completely nullifies seeing the Treaty as the covenant between the Crown and Māori ‘on which this nation is founded’. Secondly, the bill is rooted in an individualist philosophy rather than a concern for community and a relationships-based way of viewing the world. This individualism stands in contradiction to the traditional values of the Māori world. As Fr Henare Tate explained in his thesis on Māori theology, a person is a person with tapu and mana ‘only by reason of relationships with Atua (God), tangata (people) and whenua (land).’2 Likewise, Christianity is based on the commandment of love; Catholic social teaching promotes concern for the common good; and, today, most Christian denominations encourage us to be aware of the interconnectedness of all things and to care for the natural world. 

In face of the present challenges to the Treaty relationship, the bishops have given us a powerful reminder:

In the Treaty of Waitangi, we find the moral basis for our presence in Aotearoa New Zealand and a vision that sets this country apart.3 

1 Pope Francis, Laudato si’, s. 146.

2 Rev Dr Henare Arekatera Tate, Towards Some Foundations of a Systematic Māori Theology, s.2.5.3; published as He Puna Iti i te Ao Mārama (2012).

3 NZ Catholic Bishops, A Statement on the Treaty of Waitangi in Today’s Perspective, 1995, words addressed to those who are not Māori.