“We’ve got this AIDS epidemic that’s been going for 40 years and it’s still raging. Forty million people have died from HIV-related illnesses. Forty million people are living with HIV.” — Clive Aspin, associate professor at the School of Health, Te Herenga Waka Victoria University. (Photo supplied)

Clive Aspin, an associate professor at Te Herenga Waka Victoria University’s School of Health, can be justly proud of the research work he’s led on sexuality, HIV, and suicide prevention, which recently earned him an award from the Royal Society Te Apārangi. Throughout his career, he has fought for a much better understanding of HIV and AIDS, and Māori and Indigenous health. That battle is far from over, as he tells Dale in this kōrero.


Tēnā koe, Clive. Could you start with some kōrero about your whakapapa? I’m curious to know what sort of setting you grew up in and some of the people who were your mentors and influences in your early days.

I was named Stanley Clive Aspin. The Clive bit comes from my mother’s cousin, who was a squadron leader and shot down over Norway during the Second World War. His name was Clive Bennett and he was the son of my great-uncle Fred, who lived in South Africa. I was often reminded of the fact that I was named after his son.

The Stanley bit got dropped because that was the name of my father’s best mate who used to come and stay with us. And so in order not to confuse the two names, they reverted to Clive. So I’ve been known as Clive ever since. And as I’ve grown older, I’m reminded of the fact that Clive is one of the most colonising names we could imagine, because that’s where the name Clive of India came from.

So I feel like I’ve been stuck with these names from the coloniser, but that’s part of me, and that’s who I am.

I grew up on a dairy farm on the Hauraki Plains. My father, Trevor, was a dairy farmer for some time. He wasn’t a very successful farmer, and we lived in a house without any insulation. My mother, Molly, cooked on a coal range and the main source of heating in the house was an open fire. We used to put our feet on the heater in winter to keep them warm — and mum would say: “Take your feet off that, you’ll get chilblains.”

If we were feeling cold, we would stand with our backs to the open fire. And my Māori grandmother would say: “Don’t stand so close to that fire. You’ll melt the fat around your kidneys.”

So we grew up with all these sort of weird and wonderful messages. One of the strongest messages I grew up with was from my grandmother, Harata Bennett (nee Grace), who was from Ngāti Maru, up in Colville. “Clive,” she said, “whatever you do, don’t ever marry a Māori.” And my mum used to say: “Whatever you do, don’t get married before the age of 28.”

I’m happy now to be able to stand here and say, well, I took notice of both of them, because I never got married. I’m now living in a very happy same-sex relationship with my partner, Terry, with whom I’ve lived for the last 30 years.

My grandmother saw tremendous change in her life. She rode a horse all the way from Colville up to Māngere and she was witness to the first landing on the moon. But one of my abiding memories of Nana was when she came to stay with us in the latter part of her life. She’d go into Thames and sit in front of the post office, and for the very first time in my life, I heard her speaking this other language that I wasn’t familiar with. She was conversing in te reo Māori with all these people she’d grown up with in Thames and around that area.

Clive’s grandmother, Harata Bennett (nee Grace), who was from Ngāti Maru, with her children. (Photo supplied)

When I think of Colville, I think of hippies and communes. What was life like in Colville for you?

I never lived in Colville but we did go back to Colville later in life. Towards the end of her life, my grandmother went to the Māori Land Court in Thames and got her name put on a land title to claim ownership of a little portion of land up on the Colville Peninsula. We’ve pitched a tent and stayed there, and that land is still sitting there with my Nana’s name on it. Plus a whole lot of other whānau from Ngāti Maru.

Nana went to a great deal of trouble to get her name on that so that her descendants over time might be able to go and pitch a tent there. It’s a beautiful part of the country. And we have strong connections with that, but also with the Hauraki Plains just south of Thames, in a little town called Turua, where Mum and Dad spent most of their lives and where I went to school. It’s very much ingrained in who we are and where we come from today.

My sister lives in Thames and works for the local Hauora provider, and it’s tremendous that we still have that connection with Hauraki. I often meet people from Hauraki who’ve never been there, who don’t know it. And I feel a great sense of privilege to know that I spent my formative years on a dairy farm on the Hauraki Plains, despite all the difficulties and challenges that come with growing up in a place like that.

I’m from Ngāti Maru as well, Clive, so I have an understanding of the challenges the Hauraki peoples faced with colonisation. Of course, gold discovery in the Hauraki meant the establishment of towns like Thames and Coromandel, and there were some pretty dubious land practices foisted on us by the colonisers. But also, at times, there were some pretty unscrupulous behaviours from some of our own people, who perhaps allowed land to be sold when it wasn’t theirs to put the tick on the box.

What would you say of how the area was first touched by the colonisation process, and the impact that’s had on Māori who call that rohe home?

When I talk to my students, I always tell them that Hauraki is one of the most colonised parts of Aotearoa because that’s where the colonisers first stepped on shore. And I also show them a photo of the awa that I grew up with, the Waihou.

And I say that Captain Cook sailed up there and saw all these beautiful stands of kahikatea, and when he went back to England, he sent an emissary out to chop them all down and to take them back to England to make spars for the English navy. I tell my students that this is an example of what happened when the colonisers first came here. They saw, they ravaged, they took, they pillaged, because they believed that it was theirs to take.

And that’s what’s happened right across this country, where the coloniser has come and imposed regulations, and tried to turn our culture into something that mirrors what they knew back in the countries from which they’ve come.

And now we live with a legacy whereby Māori, the Indigenous people of this country, don’t have the same access to those things that our ancestors had. And so we have to somehow work our way towards rectifying those imbalances that have been created by people like Cook and his mates who came here less than 300 years ago.

I hope that somehow my work will contribute towards reclaiming some of the past, what we know from the past, but also in identifying strategies for how we can make things better for future generations.

You’re renowned for your mahi in the health sector, but I know that you’re a longtime teacher. Step us through that journey, please.

I went to university straight from school. Didn’t do very well, but managed to scrape through an undergraduate degree. Then I went teaching, first in South Auckland, then in Lower Hutt. Then I went off overseas for seven years. I came back in the early ‘80s and taught in Rotorua. It was a great time to come back because there was a renaissance happening. Then I taught in Green Bay High School in West Auckland, one of the best schools I’ve ever worked in.

Then I was lucky to have a chance to go back to university. I received a scholarship from the PPTA, the Post Primary Teachers Association. I found that I could actually study much more effectively as an adult. And that’s when I did a postgraduate degree in English language teaching. And I surprised myself that I did well. That led to me doing a PhD in public health.

And I often tell my students that the struggle to get degrees is worth it because the doors of opportunity open wide once you’ve got a few degrees under your belt, but especially a few postgraduate degrees. Graham Smith and Linda Tuhiwai Smith have been really effective in encouraging people to take up postdoctoral PhD studies. And now we have all these Māori with PhDs in decision-making roles, helping to make the world a better place.

Clive with his sister Christine Peers (left) and one of his doctoral students, Janet Collier-Taniela. (Photo supplied)

I’ve spoken with wāhine Māori academics, many of whom had felt, or been made to feel, that they weren’t capable during their secondary school years, and who went away and had tamariki, and then came back to university in their mid to late 20s. And they achieved stunning results that far eclipsed what was expected of them at school. It’s quite an interesting dynamic.

I think the secondary school system here is a racist one that works against success for our Māori young people, and especially for young Māori women. We don’t provide the opportunities that we should for young Māori to succeed and come to places like universities.

Yet we’re getting such success now from kura kaupapa Māori. This new generation of young Māori coming up through that system is testimony to the fact that our mainstream systems need to change and they need to accommodate the interests of young Māori students. And they need to promote them and support them.

I know a successful Māori academic who was expelled from school twice but managed to come back to university and get a PhD, and now he’s working in Canada. I have a friend who went off overseas, worked in Iceland for years, came back as an adult student and got an award for the best master’s degree in education.

So when people come back to these places as adults, they do really well, but they shouldn’t have to wait that long. They should be getting in at the ground floor like everybody else and have the same opportunities as other young people.

I was really fortunate to come into academia at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic. I’ve lived through that epidemic, but I’ve also had people who’ve supported me and sponsored me to do research in the field of HIV. I feel a sense of sadness that we’ve lost so many people to HIV, but I feel also a great sense of privilege to have been able to do research in that space and make a little bit of a difference.

And it just happened that I came back from living overseas at the beginning of the epidemic and I’m still around to talk and write and tell people about it. But many of our whānau have not survived. And sometimes we forget about the terrible tragedies that happened throughout the HIV epidemic.

I notice that you taught in Algeria and I’m curious to know why?

When I was in high school, I learned French and was quite good at it. Then I went to university and did a bit more French. When I went to live in England in 1977, I saw an advertisement for teachers in Algeria, and I thought: “Oh, that’s good. They speak French there.”

So I went to Algeria only to discover that most people had stopped speaking French. It had been a colonised country but Arabic was now the main language and only a few people still spoke French. I had three years there. I worked in a little country school, then I worked in Algiers and I managed to travel all around the country — and it’s one of the countries that I know most in the world because I’ve covered a lot of distance there.

That’s what led me to get involved in the Ahmed Zaoui campaign. I knew the country from which he came really well, and I was able to support him through his struggles through the law courts.

I have a great affinity for Algeria. It’s a beautiful country, beautiful people, but it has suffered a terrible legacy of colonisation and the people have struggled to regain their idea of being an Arabic country.

Ahmed Zaoui. It’s some time ago now, but he was a much-maligned character, even though from all the accounts he was a very decent man. We put him through the wringer, didn’t we? And you were supportive. In fact, there were other Māori who put out the olive branch of support, too. Why was his situation such a hot media topic during those times?

When he was here, the public emotions of fear and anxiety were running rampant. People have this terrible habit that when we don’t know something, we manufacture reasons for why things are happening. And I think in his case that’s exactly what happened. People didn’t understand the full extent of what was going on in Algeria, but also the circumstances in which he lived. And I was very lucky in that I got involved with the wonderful Deborah Manning, his lawyer, who’s been a great supporter.

As part of that campaign, I went to Paris to look at the records around the cases that Mr Zaoui had been involved in, and none of them showed that he was guilty of the things that people were trying to say he was guilty of.

Through her tenacity, Deborah was able to get the truth out there. But one of the most appalling things about Mr Zaoui’s case was that he was locked up in solitary confinement for almost a year without a charge. And that’s a great shame on our country. We pride ourselves on doing things in a just way. But he was just locked up without charge, and when he came out of that and was in remand, he was still not charged with an offence.

I used to go and visit him every Friday at Mt Eden prison and just help to cheer him. He’s a man of great resilience, and he was a great contribution to our country, I believe. And now, sadly, he’s been arrested and locked up again.

I take my hat off to Deborah Manning. She’s doing a tremendous job supporting him at the moment. I’m not quite sure how that’s going, but hopefully it will have a good resolution because he’s a New Zealand citizen and we have an obligation to provide him with all the protection that we can.

The AIDS epidemic had an impact on the perception of homosexual people and led to them being blamed for the outbreak. And then we had the sad situation of young Eve van Grafhorst who was banned from her preschool in Australia because people feared she might infect other people. How far does it set back the negative stereotyping and stigmatisation of the gay community? Are we still living with the legacy of it?

I think we are, Dale. People living with HIV today are still stigmatised. They’re still discriminated against. That’s a legacy of the last 40 years.

On the other hand, there have been significant social advances in this country and in other places like Australia and Canada with regards to same-sex relationships. When I was growing up, it would’ve been unimaginable that two men or two women could get married to each other. So now we’ve got that significant social change.

But you’ll probably remember some of the vitriol that was going around when the Homosexual Law Reform Bill was going through parliament. We’ve lived through all that terrible trauma. And there is a legacy that still continues. One of the sad realities is that LGBT people have higher rates of mental health problems and suicide. That’s got to come from the stigma and the discrimination. If you don’t feel accepted by your community, then it leads to serious outcomes such as people taking their own lives.

I’m now working in the area of suicide prevention. Young Māori have the highest rates of youth suicide in the world. And you have to ask yourself: What is it about our young people that causes them to think that there’s no future for them in this country? But that’s something we don’t confront and don’t deal with.

It’s high time we did, because Māori never used to have high rates of suicide. But somehow that’s changed in the last 20 years, and it’s gone through the roof. So the legacy of the HIV pandemic, when gay and lesbian people were discriminated against, still lingers on.

And when we hear politicians in this new government railing against people who are different, especially transgender people, it just reinforces the discrimination that we’ve lived with for most of my lifetime. It’s really unhelpful.

If we want to make this a better community, with better mental health outcomes, that sort of rhetoric has to stop. We can’t continue to ostracise people simply because of their gender or their sexuality. But sadly, some politicians think it’s still okay to make those sorts of statements.

Clive Aspin and his partner of 30 years, Terry Armstrong, with the Te Rangi Hiroa Medal he received last year from the Royal Society Te Apārangi. (Photo supplied)

It’s deplorable that our Māori youth suicide rate is the worst in the world. It should be a source of great shame for us. It’s also an ongoing challenge. What are some of the dynamics that are around us at the moment?

I think with a lot of our health problems, the answers reside within whānau. Whānau know what the problems are, they know what the solutions are, and therefore governments have a responsibility to resource whānau, to empower them to be agents of change.

One of the approaches we’re taking in our suicide prevention project is to look at how coronial services operate, and how they do or do not involve whānau. Because I believe that, if whānau are involved in the processes around the death of a loved one, then they become agents of change, and they can have an impact within their own communities.

We also need to address a whole lot of social determinants in our communities. How do we provide good housing? How do we provide more employment opportunities? How do we resource people to be the agents of health services? All those sorts of resource support systems are really important for improving mental health and reducing suicide.

But suicide is a very complex issue. There’s no one reason why someone might take their own life. We need to address all those different dimensions. And that’s where whānau becomes such an important aspect of the whole prevention service. Not only for suicide, but for a whole lot of other issues and illnesses that confront us on a regular basis.

Has your search seen any correlation between sexuality and suicide?

Not my work in particular, but we know from overseas studies that there is a correlation between sexual identity and suicide. It’s quite clear that LGBT people are significantly discriminated against with regard to sexuality, with regard to identity. This discrimination that they’re exposed to is still very significant, and it has to be a driving factor in terms of people having poor mental health outcomes and especially exposure to suicide ideation.

There’s a perception in New Zealand that the AIDS pandemic has been and gone, and we’re dealing only with new pandemics like Covid, but it’s far from gone.

It’s far from gone. And I’m actually giving a talk at a conference on immunology in Auckland and I’ll be telling them: “We’ve got this AIDS epidemic that’s been going for 40 years and it’s still raging. Forty million people have died from HIV-related illnesses. Forty million people are living with HIV.” We have small numbers in New Zealand, but that doesn’t mean it’s gone away, and we must be vigilant.

We’re fortunate in this country because we have access to antiretrovirals, the drugs that make HIV undetectable in your body if you’re positive. But many poor countries don’t have access to those amazing drugs. The cure to AIDS really lies in the discovery of a vaccine, but nobody has come anywhere near to discovering a vaccine to prevent the transmission of HIV. It’s probably going to be with us for the next few decades.

We’ve got the pandemic of HIV, we’ve got a pandemic of Covid, and, in my eyes, we also have a pandemic in relation to suicide. There are commonalities right across those three areas that disproportionately affect Māori. Māori have higher rates for each of those sicknesses, illnesses, epidemics.

I’ve just been reading The Coming of the Māori by Te Rangi Hiroa. He points out that we didn’t have epidemics before colonisation. But now we do, and we’re disproportionately affected by them. And mainly because the top-down approach to dealing with these epidemics don’t really work.

We had some great examples of community involvement in lifting vaccination rates for Covid. Riana Manuelwas really effective in terms of getting out there in the community, encouraging people to get vaccinated when she was working at the Hauora provider in Thames. We need to see more of that happening. Communities need to be empowered and resourced to show the way forward.

Clive and his son Louis, who’s now 28 and lives in London. (Photo supplied)

Many of the health issues that we’re challenged by seem to be a result of the colonisation process. Perhaps that’s mirrored internationally. Is there a unity as colonised peoples or First Nations peoples trying to reassert our mana globally?

It’s sobering to look at what happens in Australia, Canada and the United States, and to see distinct parallels between those three countries and what happens here in Aotearoa.

I was fortunate to be involved in a three-country collaboration, looking at the resilience of Indigenous people with regard to HIV. We found that there were significant disparities with regard to HIV diagnoses. Rates of HIV in the three countries were higher for the Indigenous folk than for the non-Indigenous.

And this is 20 to 25 years after HIV first became part of our health landscape. Indigenous people had worse outcomes, and that continues today.

Why should that be? It’s the colonisation, the intergenerational trauma that’s been caused by colonisation, which is common to those three countries, that’s led to these negative health outcomes.

It’s not unique to New Zealand. I often think of Canadians and Australians as our cousins. We’re all going through the same trauma — the detachment from land, the incarceration in prisons, and the incarceration in school.

I spent two years at a boarding school and I saw firsthand the violence that was meted out to young teenage boys, and that continues today. It’s traumatic and sad to think that it takes a royal commission to unearth the atrocities happening within our schools — and it hasn’t gone away. I was at school 40 to 50 years ago and we were treated in a very violent way, and the legacy of that still continues. It happened in Canada and it happened in Australia and it’s still happening.

Was it a Māori boarding school?

No, it was St Paul’s College in Auckland. There were a few Māori boys at that school and quite a few Pacific boys. The violence meted out by those brothers of the day was just extraordinary. We lived in fear of those brothers. They all wore habits, and they carried a cane which they pulled out at the least provocation.

If you couldn’t get Pythagoras’s theory correct, you’d be lined up and you’d all be whacked. And the sad thing about that, Dale, is that I still remember the names of the brothers who meted out that violence. It’s terrible that I think back on my school years and can only remember the violent teachers. I can’t not remember. I do. There was one very kind brother, but I mostly remember the violent ones.

Did you ever think you should name them, or is this something you just bottled up as part of your reality?

Well, the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in Care is naming people, and I think that can’t be a bad thing. Most of them have passed away now, I guess, but some are still alive.

I spent two years teaching at St Bernard’s College in Lower Hutt, and I was mortified to read recently that some of the people with whom I was working back then have been named as sexual abusers. People who I thought were kind people, but they’ve been named as sexual abusers. I think it’s important to name those people because we like to hope that this will never happen again. We have to be optimistic for the future.

We’ve spoken about a lot of the challenges to te ao Māori, health-wise, perception-wise, but just to balance some of that, I have tremendous pride in our people and our resilience, and in the untapped potential of our rangatahi. What makes you most proud of our Māori people, Clive?

I often think about how fortunate and privileged I am to have whakapapa Māori through my grandmother, with whom I became very close before she died. I think the future of this country resides within the Indigenous population. And I’m reminded of what Tariana Turia said when she entered politics: “I’m in politics to prepare the nation for when the majority of the population will be Māori.”

I have nieces and nephews who are going to be part of that generational change. And therein lies my great hope for the future of this country. My partner and I came back to live in New Zealand five to six years ago because of the change of government. We could see positive things happening. Then, along came the Māori Health Authority and I was fortunate to be seconded to that agency for six months last year. I could see the transformational change that was happening.

There’s been all these positive things that have happened in my lifetime, and I feel pleased and proud to be part of that movement. We just need to make sure that continues into the future because we can’t go back.

Another thing that gives me a great sense of pride is the young Māori students with whom I work here at Victoria University Te Herenga Waka. They are the voice of the future, and the more that I can support them and help them to succeed, the happier I am. I have a few students that I supervise, who are going to be the decision-makers of the future, because that’s where we’re going to get the incremental change that we need. And it will put us in a position of being leaders in the world.

With whānau at the Matai Whetů marae in Thames. (Photo supplied)

Let’s wrap up with some congratulations on the acknowledgment of your longstanding interest in research in particular. The Royal Society Te Apārangi gave you a tohu, acknowledging your mana over the decades. That celebration was tempered with the reality that, politically, almost the very next day, things started to go backwards. We’ve just been talking about some of the positive impact Māori have had on the way that the country is rolling, and then all of a sudden, we’re rolling back down the hill.

It was a great celebration on the night, but we were shocked the next day when the incoming government made the announcement about the repeal of the smokefree legislation.

I grew up in a family where there was passive smoking everywhere. All my aunts and uncles smoked and most didn’t make it to 80. They died younger than everybody else. So I’ve lived with a legacy of the impact of smoking on people’s lives, how it shortened their lives and caused all sorts of other illnesses, like heart disease and diabetes.

So to hear the government propose to repeal the smokefree legislation is heartbreaking, and especially when it will be led by a doctor who knows that there’s evidence that smoking causes people to die younger.

But I think that, with the award of this tohu, I’m in a position to be able to talk about the importance of these measures to protect our future generation and how we can be leaders again in the fight against the harms caused by tobacco.

I’ve been part of discussions here about what we can do to push back against this move. Hopefully, the pushback will make a difference because there are some awful things on the horizon if this government carries out their promises.

I like to wrap up by asking people what else they do. You know, sometimes we talk about the work we do rather than the things we love. What are some of the things you do outside of mahi that refresh you?

I worked for the government for a while, and I can remember walking into the office and feeling like I was walking into a cage of battery hens. People were staring at their screens, and making policy for people out in the communities.

For me, it was a reminder that we need to disengage from our computers from time to time. I’m a keen gardener. I like to have a lot of colour in the garden. I’ve built a hanging wall garden using pallets left out on the curb. We also have two dogs that we brought from Cambodia who are a great source of inspiration and affection. I’ve also recently taken up painting in watercolours. I like to share my paintings around and give them to people.

Another thing I’ve started to do recently is learn how to play the ukulele. We have a ukulele group here at work and we meet once a week to practise our waiata. So I have lots of things happening in my life, and I feel very fortunate to be in my latter years and be able to do these things.

And I have a wide circle of friends. I love eating and drinking and socialising. I’m a real Gemini, Dale. I like mixing with people. I have a very full life.

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

© E-Tangata, 2024

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