Susanna Ounei spent her life fighting for Kanak people. She’s pictured here in Suva in 1997. (Photo: Nic Maclellan)

Susanna Ounei (1945 – 2016) was a leading figure in the fight for Kanaky independence. She spent a lot of time in Aotearoa and settled in Wellington in the 2000s, where she worked to decolonise the Pacific, and support Māori struggles for tino rangatiratanga.

In 1985, Susanna delivered a speech in Kenya as part of activities to celebrate the United Nations Decade for Women. It was the first major presentation by a Kanak woman at an international meeting of women. She spoke to an audience who knew little about New Caledonia.

Her 1985 speech still offers a brilliant insight into the Kanak struggle, for those who are unfamiliar with the history. This is an edited version of what she said.


When it is said that the South Pacific is a paradise, where beautiful beaches and white sand and blue skies can be found, that is superficial. There in the Pacific, the Kanak people, the Melanesian people, have been dying every day since 1853. When the French people and their government came in 1853, they colonised our country without asking our permission, or if they could stay in our home.

We have had many troubles since then. We suffered massacres in 1853, and we continue to die from massacres by the French. The colonial government claims that in 1853 we were only 75,000 people. We Kanaks say we were more than 200,000 people at that time. But after the massacre and the murders, the population was only 26,000. A massacre touches every Kanak because most of us are related by family.

Then we became isolated because our grandfathers and grandmothers were really scared. And they stayed like that. But we had several revolts and two national uprisings. In 1878, a great chief named Atai led the first insurrection. The colonists came to him and said, “The leaves of your taro disturb our cattle.” And Atai answered, “You know the leaves of my taro do not eat your cattle, but your cattle eat my taro every day.” There was a big fight, and they killed Atai and several thousand Kanaks.

The problems we had then are the same as the ones we have now. We had no weapons, just our own arms. But we were isolated then, not like now. Now we have international contact and can go outside New Caledonia and talk about our own issues.

In 1917, there was another insurrection, a big uprising also, this time led by Chief Noel. Remember that during World War I, the Europeans called up many of the world’s Blacks to be put in the front lines. In the French language, we call that service de char a canon — cannon fodder — put the Blacks in front so that they are the ones killed first. They took our people from New Caledonia and sent them to France to protect the French land from the Germans. Noel asked why must he go with his people to die in France for the French land, while the French had stolen our land at home.

So Noel refused to go to France, and they killed him. He was beheaded and his head was sent to a museum in France. And after doing something like that, they call us savages and terrorists. Now the head of our chief is in France, and we want it back.

That was the life of our grandfathers and grandmothers, and until 1946 we did not even have the right to go outside the reserves. Our grandparents — and parents, too — did not have the right to leave. If they wanted to go into town, they had to ask permission of gendarmes, the police, who had to write on the permit giving them permission.

Our parents and grandparents began to talk about the creation of the first movement for liberty, which was limited to just wanting some reforms. This was in 1952, and only in 1952 did the Kanak people have the right to vote. Before that they did not have the right to vote or go outside. After 9 o’clock at night, there was a curfew. And if Kanak people found themselves outside of the boundaries, they were killed just like deer or the pigs are slaughtered.

So, in 1952, our parents organised a new political movement called the Union Caledonienne (UC), and its creation was helped by the church. The UC was limited to reforming colonialism, but that was all right. It was acceptable because at that time we were only children, still needing our parents to give us food, some clothing, and to pay for the doctor. And so we grew up like that, hearing the story of our grandparents and their struggle.

When the French say they send a lot of money to New Caledonia, in reality they send nothing. The money they send home is coming from the wealth of our country. We are the third largest producer in the world of nickel. Nickel is a very important mineral in arms manufacturing. The extraction of it has involved incredible environmental destruction. They just rip the top off whole hillsides. The industry is almost entirely foreign-owned and is the basis for about 90 percent of New Caledonia’s money from export earnings. Even though the world market for nickel is not very strong at the moment, France would not like to lose all of “its” nickel. Some Kanaks wonder if the nickel has something to do with French determination not to grant independence.

Also, French undersea mining technology tells them that we have manganese, chrome, zinc, cobalt, gold, copper, and iron, and that our sea is three times richer in minerals than our land. All of these minerals are called “strategic”. That means that they are used to make weapons.

We also have coffee, copra, and tourism. So when they say they send money home, that is not true. It is our money. And when they send some money from France to home, it is coming from our minerals, from the wealth of our country.

But from this money that France sends home, we get no benefit. It goes to the white settlers who live in New Caledonia. They have the rights to it, not us. This is also true for the Tahitians, the Wallisians, or whatever.

When they introduce a picture of New Caledonia overseas, they always introduce the picture of New Caledonia with beautiful beaches and a wahine, a Polynesian woman, who dances the tamoure. But they never show the picture of the Kanak people. The Kanak people are us, the Black people, who live there.

That is why when we hear the sister from South Africa, we can find our story, too. On one side there is us, the Black people, and on the other side is the white settlers. Everything is for them. For us, nothing. That is our life. But in spite of the obstacles, we are beginning to rise up. One of the obstacles is the situation of our people in the labour market.

Out of 60,000 Kanak people, only 7,000 have jobs. The rest of the people live on reserves. We are lucky that our sea is so rich that it gives crabs and other food, but that is on a good, beautiful day. When it rains, we just eat our manioc without anything. That is the life of a Kanak. When a Kanak becomes involved in a political way, it is almost impossible to keep a job. Scores of our people have their baccalaureates, yet do not have a way to earn a living. The few who do work have the worst tasks.

But when we talk about that, they call us communists, pro-Russia or pro-Cuba. That is what we are called at home. They wrote several articles about our struggle, and they say overseas that we are inspired by Cuba or by Libya. But, as we say, we are isolated. We do not know where Cuba and Libya are located.

When we were young, we suffered because we were called names by our teachers. In front of whites at school, I was called “dirty kanak” by our teachers. Dirty kanak. Kanak was a pejorative word at that time. And our grandparents and parents were ashamed as well as scared. They were ashamed of the name of kanak. And as young people, we grew up in that name-calling environment. Kanak, kanak, kanak-kanak everywhere.

So in 1969, we created the Red Scarves. We created it to make the word kanak valuable, to make it so we do not have to be ashamed of being Kanak. We have to be proud. We do not have to deny our rights, our skin, our ethnicity.

At home, they teach us to deny our skin colour. They teach us that our ancestors came from Gaul. You know Gaul — it is old France. So, our ancestors came from Gaul with blue eyes and blonde hair. A big contradiction, you know. When I was 10 years old, I, like others, began to say by heart: “My ancestors come from Gaul, with blue eyes and blonde hair.” But that is not our story. That is the story of France.

We asked our teachers if our ancestors came from France, with blue eyes. Well, we learned the whole history of France, about Napoleon, Louis the 14th, and the geography of France, but nothing about our country.

So, you see, I never had any real opportunity to study because I was thrown out of many schools in my youth for various forms of insubordination. None of the struggles about our people are in the books we read in school. So, it is necessary for me to write as many articles as I can in order to tell the reality of our people, because Kanak young people are taught that they are not worth anything. One of the history books I remember reading said that we Kanaks are the lowest of the black Melanesians, not like Polynesians, who are like whites.

So, in 1969, when we created our own group, we made our own Kanak world valuable. We are proud to be Kanak, so we renamed ourselves with a word the French had used to make us feel bad. But our parents got scared and said to us: “What do you want? We worked for 75 years without wages to build up our country, and now you have gone to school, and you have a little bit of knowledge. Aren’t we doing all right?”

And we said: “No.” We have to talk again about your — our — our past, because it is not just. We are ignorant of our past, and the only past that we know is you.

Our grandparents did not have the right to go outside after 9pm until 1946, and our parents grew up with that. We say that we have to make everything valuable again. Us, our culture, and ask for the return of our land without conditions.

Then, many of our people, like Nidoish Naesseline, went to jail three times. He was our leader at that time. Our people in the countryside began to think again about our story, our own history.

The date of our colonisation is 24 September 1853. So every September 24 at home, there is a big celebration to commemorate when the French arrived to take possession of our country. In 1974, we refused. We said: “No!” We have to tell our people that they must stop celebrating the death of our people. That holiday represents the blood of our people, and we do not have to celebrate the date of our death. For us, it is a big funeral.

So, on 24 September 1974, we demonstrated while the army was coming with their guns. We were only 30 or less. We demonstrated with our banner — our opposition to the army. And of course, you can imagine what happened afterwards. They just beat us, and there was blood on the road. They arrested 20 of us on that day in 1974. And I was one of them. That was in 1974.

It was good, because lots of our people were everywhere, and they witnessed that. They began to wonder and to ask themselves why. Why? So that our people would not feel they had to celebrate with the white settlers.

The day after, the Kanak people went to court to demand the release of all the prisoners, and by then the group numbered 50. They gave the prisoners a sentence of eight days. We said, “No,” we want a release of all the prisoners now. The French refused. So the Kanaks sat, just like we are sitting now in this room. And that is how we started to evolve. People were asking questions now inside of themselves. Not just the women but also the men. They had a debate. And they talked together, in cooperation.

We began in 1969 and 1974 to ask these questions, and we come back now to see how they have evolved, moved forward — and in front of the army now, because there is a curfew with increased militarisation. Everywhere in our tribal lands, they would go every day to beat our people. This time, when they beat our people, not only the men but also the woman fight back.

Do you know what we fight with? Only stones. But with the stones, we have made a big destabilization in our country, in the countryside.

And when they see how the women fight . . . Oh, when I think how we have evolved together. We have progressed. We do not fight just the white settlers, but we also fight to change the place of women for the future. I believe that this is an internal problem. We have to be inside to ask these questions. We have to be inside the struggle with the men. We do not want to make something that is separate from them, because we live inside with them. We do not have one world with only us, and another world for the men. No. So women have to raise questions together with them.

Susanna Ounei with Kanak brothers working for Kanaky independence. (Photo supplied)

I think our Kanak brothers have really evolved in this way now. When I came back in 1974, they told me: “You are full of theory now.” Now I see their mentality is changing, and how the people at the grassroots level ask new questions and talk in the big congress.

In the big general assembly of the FLNKS (the Kanak and Socialist National Liberation Front), when men ask questions about the issues of women, then I think we have won a point. But as for us, that is our problem, from inside. We have to ask them questions, but they are not our enemy. They are our brothers. As for me, I did not identify my struggle with the white woman who had her man kill my people. Even if we have the same problems as white women, I cannot identify with her. You see, I know the right wing at home also talks about the problems of women. But in these social issues, we Kanaks have nothing. Everything is for the white woman. They have a better situation than us, because the French woman lives in better conditions.

Let me tell you what I mean. When they killed a lot of our people as they did this year, they killed one of our leaders. He was Eloi Machoro. Eloi Machoro was my brother in the struggle against colonialism and for true independence. And what did white women do? They went all over the town of Noumea — because the town of Noumea is a white town — and they cried, “We won, we won,” because they killed him. How could I identify with a woman who does not identify with my brother? But as we say, we are 60,000 Machoros today.

Let me tell you another example about how the French women see Kanaks. Right here in Nairobi, I attended a workshop on the nuclearisation of the Pacific. It was being run by the French women, and there were women from Tahiti in the room. A woman I do not know asked the French women what links they saw between denuclearisation and decolonisation in the region. After they avoided the question, I asked it again. I said that you cannot understand the nuclearisation of the Pacific without knowing what the French government is doing in Kanaky and Tahiti. Finally, they said they were not there to talk about colonialism.

The women at the workshop wanted to hear someone from the Pacific talk about the problems there, and so I spoke. Then I asked the Tahitian sisters to speak as well. At the end, the French women told me that I was very arrogant and not like other women from the Pacific, who are much nicer and gentler than me. I replied that it was hard to be nice and kind when your people are getting killed by the French colonial army and settlers.

And so it was the white women with their men, and even some of the Tahitian and Wallisian women with their men, who helped to say, “We won” that day Machoro was killed. We do not identify our struggle with them. If they have a problem with their men in their homes, it is their problem, as it is our problem when we struggle inside our movement to say, just with our stones, “We almost won.”

[Taking chalk and making a map of New Caledonia on the blackboard] Australia is here and New Zealand there. Right here is Noumea, the capital. We have three major islands, including lIe Belet and lIe des Pins, and several islands called the Loyalty Islands. Here is the capital, the white town. Before, in 1979, for 40,000 Kanaks there were only 374,000 hectares. Only 4,000 white farmers had 432,000 hectares. So they put us on the mountain. [Pointing to the map on the blackboard] We are here, here, and here. This is the Kanak area. They put us on the mountain with the mimosa trees with prickly leaves. How can we grow our yams or vegetables here?

And they have most of our land for their cattle. So now, with just our stones, they are all in Noumea now. All 85,000 whites are in the capital. And we are growing in our strength in many regions. We are everywhere now.

On May 7, 1985, they sent a nuclear submarine to prevent Kanak independence. Since the nuclear submarine arrived, a big struggle has been going on in Noumea because they just hate us now, because we have pushed them away. They do not understand what we are doing in town, because for them Noumea is a white town. We say Noumea is Kanak land. It does not belong to Paris, and we are going to try to stay there now.

Now there is a lot of tension because of the struggle in Noumea. In the countryside, when we came back from our mountain, our people said: “Before, they put us in the mountains, and now we have come back to stay.” When they came back to take their cattle, we said that the cattle are ours. When they killed our people, their houses burned.

Our current situation is really, really tense. But if they kill our people, we no longer have to love them. I do not believe in turning the other cheek. They came with the Bible in front of them, in the hands of the Catholic missionaries, and the army behind them. And when we woke up, it was us with the Bible in our hand, and they had our land.

Of all the churches, only the Protestant church believes in our struggle and helps us. But not the Catholic church, because not many Kanaks want to go to the fathers. So the majority of the fathers in the church are the French.

But we Kanaks who oppose participating in French elections are in the majority. We are 80 percent and we boycotted elections last year. Why should we vote when the people who they think will decide the future of Kanaky are those who have lived in New Caledonia for three years? This includes people who have come from Algeria (called the pieds-noirs), from Tahiti, Wallis and Futuna, wherever. They all are offered better jobs. Maybe next month it will be even more tense, because it is just getting worse.

We are going overseas by ourselves, to call for solidarity from the international community. We believe in international links, in international help, because we are only 60,000. We are not millions. And we cannot do something clandestinely, you know, because of our skins. This is the life of our people. We want international solidarity, but I think our people are so determined they will go to the end. I do not think we will go back.

But France is planning to strangle our struggle by creating a Kanak middle class that will help them. The French have realised that their apartheid-like policies of putting our people out of the white towns and onto reserves is going to be a problem for them some day.

Yet they send all kinds of armies to our home villages now. We have 11,000 mercenaries, CRS [a type of special police force], Red Berets, parachutists. All this for 60,000 Kanak people.

Last year, I went to the Philippines, and when I went back home, I thought I had missed my plane and was back in Manila. It was the same — everywhere there is a curfew, everywhere the guns are ready to shoot.

Since they go to the reserves to beat our people, just as I was leaving the country one of the gendarmes was killed. It is not a crime to defend our lives. On the television, they interviewed the mercenaries and asked them if they were sad to lose one of their friends. They answered: “No, we are not sad, but we just hate them.”

“Them” is us. I know all of us were in front of the television and heard how they said that they hate us. And when they said they hate us, we realised that we do not have to love them. We can hate them too.

Susanna Ouinei

Susanna Ouinei

Susanna Ounei (1945–2016) was a founder and former president of the women’s organization within the FLNKS (Front de Liberation National Kanak et Socialist), the GFKEL (Groupe des Femmes Kanaks et Exploitees en Lutte).

You can read more about her life, in this piece by Teresia Teaiwa.

Thank you for reading E-Tangata. If you like our focus on Māori and Pasifika stories, interviews, and commentary, we need your help. Our content takes skill, long hours and hard work. But we're a small team and not-for-profit, so we need the support of our readers to keep going.

If you support our kaupapa and want to see us continue, please consider making a one-off donation or contributing $5 or $10 a month.