Commemorate, celebrate, look to future

Jacinda Ardern
Jacinda Ardern
Many New Zealanders often use one of two words to describe how they mark Waitangi Day.

When you get time today — and you will almost certainly get time, because many of us would also use the word ‘‘holiday’’ to describe the day — see how often these words are used in the media or among friends.

Those words are ‘‘commemorate’’ and ‘‘celebrate’’. They are used singularly, together and interchangeably, but they hint at different ways to observe the most important series of events in our still-young nation’s history.

For some, February 6 is a public holiday on which New Zealand commemorates the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. For those who chose their words carefully, it is a day to observe a truly historic happening.

In commemorating, they mark what happened and what followed. They may consider what the signatories expected from the Treaty and what it came to mean — and how it was used, misused, or ignored.

For some, commemorating is not celebrating because celebrating is hard when so much of our nation’s relationship — or, more precisely, the Crown’s relationship — with Te Tiriti o Waitangi remains unresolved.

This is not an unreasonable approach to marking what so many New Zealanders consider our national day. Our national day is precisely the right time to remember, consider and reaffirm the principles of partnership that ought to have flowed from the Treaty’s signing.

For others, it is a day of celebration, and not necessarily because it is a welcome public holiday at the tail-end of summer. They revel in the day, gathering at concerts and dance parties, picnics and plays at marae and town squares all over the country.

There is much to celebrate. The Treaty was the first of its kind and without it, New Zealand’s trajectory to nationhood may have been quite different. As flawed and inconsistent as its Maori and English versions were, it has nonetheless — belatedly and lamentably unevenly — provided the building blocks for a partnership between the Crown and Maori that may otherwise not exist.

Those who celebrate, celebrate the potential the Treaty ought to provide.

There is room for both approaches, singularly and together, as we mark Waitangi Day. The past and the present should mingle freely in our thoughts as we consider what the day means for us.

We should also redouble our efforts to consider what we want from the Treaty and the Treaty partnership as New Zealand matures as a nation.

Traditionally, most have left that sort of thing to their politicians. As we wait for inequalities to be addressed, it would be fair to say this has not always produced fairness and consistency.

One of the most consistent disappointments for many has been how so much of what so many people see in Waitangi Day is overwhelmed by trivial disputes and political squabbling. Political parties invariably use the day to lambast each other for their failings before starting February 7 without concrete answers or new approaches.

This year, there has been commentary as to whether Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern should take her baby, Neve, to Waitangi, and whether that reduces their attendance to just another photo opportunity.

This feeds the same old narrative trundled out every time the Prime Minister does anything in public with her child, but this time it happens on a day rich in symbolism.

Waitangi Day is not just about commemorating or celebrating. It is also about understanding and challenging what continues to happen, and looking to the future.

Baby Neve is as much about that future as the children attending events at marae and public reserves all around the country. Their attendance is a very firm reminder of the importance of this day.

Whatever happens between the Waitangi Days we commemorate, celebrate or both, will shape the meaning of the Waitangi Days of their future.


A sovereignty partnership where one side has 100% and the other nil isn't a partnership. Maori as a real partner would have fiscal rights over taxation and some kind of legislature. This Government's use of partnership is a hollow term.