Glenis Philip-Barbara, Assistant Māori Children’s Commissioner. (Photo supplied)

Andrew Becroft has been the Children’s Commissioner over the last four years and has been an enlightened and energetic advocate for the welfare of kids who are having it tough. Many, too many, are Māori, and he’s been keen for the office to have the insights and expertise of a Māori Commissioner too.

That expertise and loads of relevant experience have now arrived in the form of Glenis Philip-Barbara. She came through Gisborne Girls’ High in the 1980s, married Nick Barbara and raised seven children, gathered up a BA (in Social Sciences) from Massey University, and has had senior roles in several organisations including Tairawhiti Polytech, Te Taura Whiri i te Reo (the Māori Language Commission), and the Ministry of Social Development. And, as you can tell from this conversation with Dale, she’s ready for the challenges.


Kia ora, Glenis. Your name, like mine, isn’t particularly Māori. So, I wonder if you could tell us something about your name — and your taha Māori connection? 

My dad is Pākehā, and he has Scottish lineage. On his father’s side, they’re from County Angus. On his mother’s side, they’re from the Isle of Skye and of Clan McDonald.

Mum and Dad had a deal. If the baby was a boy, Mum got to choose the name — and if it was a girl, then it was Dad. They had three girls, so Dad got to name us all.

Glenis, the name he chose for me, reflects his Scottish ancestry. It means dweller in a glen, or valley, and that was a name that resonated with my dad for his oldest girl.

As I’ve explained, the “Philip” half of my surname also comes from Scotland. And “Barbara” is my husband’s surname. I was one of those early ‘90s brides who decided that the coolest thing I could do for my husband while maintaining my own identity was to whack his name on the end of mine. Hence the double-barrelled surname.

Everything about my surname, then, points to my husband and my father.

And yet my whakapapa Māori comes from my mother, and on her side, I’m a 47th generation descendant from Māui — Māui Tikitiki ā Taranga. Ngāti Porou, Ngāti Uepōhatu, with a splash of Whakaue through my great-grandmother.

We have a tipuna kuia who was talked about a lot at the pōhiri to welcome me into this role. Hinetapora was a revered leader in the Uepōhatu territory, and her influence was massive. She trained warriors in hand-to-hand combat and was responsible for the skill of our fighting forces during her lifetime.

She was also your quintessential Ngāti Porou woman. She didn’t back down from a challenge and always did what was right for her whānau. Most of us aspire to be like her and some of my lucky cousins even carry her name.

On my Māori side, my grandmother’s whānau are Aupōuri and Houia. My grandfather’s whānau are Wanoa and Koia. Our Ngāti Whakaue connection comes through our kuia, Mereana Pikopiko, who married Rota Tumehe Houia. They were my nanny’s grandparents on her mother’s side who raised her at Reporua.

I gather that your family moved around the motu when you were a kid. Tell us, please, about how your mum and dad got together?

Both Mum and Dad were in the army. But in those days, once a woman married or became pregnant, she had to leave. So, Mum had to quit the service after a short stint. But Dad stayed on and I grew up in army camps all over the country. We also got to spend two or three years living in Singapore.

Dad had hopped on a train out of Dannevirke when he was 16 — he was in search of adventure, and was bound for the army. Midway through his military life, Dad was commissioned as an officer, so he moved into leadership with a clear idea of the lived reality of his troops.

I remember my sister and I being the only brown kids in the officers’ mess. That was an interesting combination of feeling pressure to have perfect manners, to stay clean and tidy — and just the absolute freedom that a kid enjoys eating all the kai and playing around.

You’re the eldest of three girls. And, because you were a bright kid, I guess you were bringing home great school reports. Was there any reaction to the fact that this Māori kid was tracking so well?

Well, those were the pre-Zoom days, of course. Teachers never laid eyes on me until I showed up at their classrooms. Yet they must have already made their minds up about what a “Glenis Philip” should look like.

So, when I rocked up with my long plaits and chocolate complexion, they were always . . . surprised. And they were particularly surprised to see me being streamed into the top class.

Every time I turned up on my first day to my new class at a new school, I was told that there’d been a mistake. Without exception. No matter which school I’d just arrived at, I was re-assigned to the lower classes. That’s pure racism, right there. The idea that a brown kid can’t be bright.

In every case, my Pākehā father would front up to the principal the very next day. He would have a stern conversation with that principal, and I’d be returned to the top class.

Under sufferance, always. Given a strict warning around the need to perform and earn my place in that class.

Those kinds of experiences either make or break you. And I’m a fairly determined Ngāti Porou woman. So, yeah, I wasn’t going to give in to racism.

Materoa Philip, Fiona Philip, Glenis Philip & Kevin Philip (third sister Jennifer Philip was not born yet) in 1972

Glenis, on her father Kevin’s lap, with her mother Materoa and sister Fiona, in 1972. (Photo supplied)

You’ve been the CEO of Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Māori. So, tell us please about your journey with the reo. 

My mum is a native speaker. And she was from the generation whose tamariki were caned or strapped for speaking te reo at school.

I know that it took me some time to realise what it would be like to be strapped or beaten, every day of your schooling life, for eight to 10 years, for speaking the language your parents and your grandparents speak to you at home, your native tongue . . . Those things must have had a devastating psychological effect.

When I had my own children at kōhanga, and was speaking the reo to them, my uncle told me how incredibly anxious it made him feel to hear us speaking te reo so freely between ourselves in public. Some 50 years has passed since he was at school, but those beatings were still affecting him at a time when we, the next generation, were doing everything in our power to restore the reo to our whānau as none of us could speak it.

Again, that’s another example of racism in our country. The idea that our native language has so little value that we should beat it out of our nation’s children.

Kia ora, Glenis. That brings it home, doesn’t it? But I gather you found yourself in the Māori Women’s Welfare League. And you became involved because of your nana. Tell us about her and why she wanted you by her side.

Well, in any whānau there are obligations that come with being the oldest granddaughter. And so I was at the beck and call of my grandparents who I absolutely adored. My grandfather was a Mihingare priest, and my grandmother was a lifetime member of the Te Hapara branch of the Māori Women’s Welfare League.

I drove my Papa to church on Sundays and I was lucky enough to go to all of the hui with Nan. But she also made me pay close attention to what was happening around me, and to the kōrero in particular. And, at the end of any day, whether we were on the marae or in the hui, I would have to give Nan a full report on the goings-on of the day.

Years later, when I was being interviewed by the State Services Commission, I was very pleased to tell them that my early training in policy came from my grandmother and the Māori Women’s Welfare League.

Who’s this fulla, Nick, who stole your heart?

Yes, he’s a beautiful Lebanese man. Nick was born in Australia. His dad had served in the New Zealand army and, on his way back from the Korean War, he met Nick’s mum in Sydney, Australia.

Nick is also ex-military. He joined up as a cadet (like my Dad) and, nowadays, he works with the Tauawhi Men’s Centre in Turanga, on their stopping-violence programme. He’s working with men who want to transform their lives. So, he does incredibly important work with a great group of people — and he loves it.

Does he cook Lebanese food for you? 

His mum would never let her boys in the kitchen. However, she did teach me. We had a Barbara family reunion in Dunedin a couple of years back and I’m proud to say that my Lebanese cuzzies and I served up a full Lebanese spread for 100 people. So hey-hey, that’s my training, and I feel like I’ve arrived!

Glenis and Nick (Photo supplied)

You’ve arrived all right. But, crikey, I gather you headed off to Massey University with three preschoolers in tow. What drove you to do that?

I was working at the then-Department of Social Welfare at the time. And I realised that, if I really wanted to help the whānau coming into the office on a daily basis, then I needed to get myself educated.

I was actually inspired by a client of mine, who I was supporting with her training incentive allowance. She invited me to her graduation. Attending that graduation really moved me, and I thought: “Come on, girl. Get your A into G and get to school.”

So my first day at Massey University, I had one child holding my hand, one in the pram, and one in the backpack. I think there are more than 60 steps heading up to Māori Studies at Massey University, and in more ways than one, those stairs did feel like a huge climb.

But waiting at the top of the stairs, of course, was Professor Mason Durie, who was the head of department at the time.

And I feel so privileged to have been taught by him, to have attended his Treaty classes, to have been blessed with the knowledge that he brought to Māori Studies.

In the final year of my degree, baby number four arrived in the mid-semester break. I think Katene is the only baby who ever made it into a photo on the wall at the Massey University’s Students’ Association.

Lovely story. Mason Durie is a legend, isn’t he? And his influence across a generation of thinkers and change agents can’t be overstated, can it, Glenis?

He was an incredibly powerful lecturer — and such a wise leader. I remember there was a guy in our class, Justin from Tūhoe, who came to school with a patu in his gumboot.

And when Mason was telling us things that were hard for us as Māori students to bear, sometimes Justin would get up with his patu and haka.

Which was such a relief for all of us. Because he was expressing how we all felt. And it was an incredible thing not only to be in a room with somebody comfortable enough to spontaneously express their emotions — but also with a leader who made space for that to happen. That was great.

You’ve done some really interesting language work with Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Māori (the Māori Language Commission). Looking back from where we’re at now, with the first kōhanga kids just about old enough to be grandparents, how do you read our reo efforts over the past 30 or 40 years?

The fruits of that labour are so, so sweet. I have such massive confidence in that kura and kōhanga generation, the way that they’re so effortlessly comfortable with themselves and with their reo. They back their thinking processes in a way that used to cause our generation absolute stress. So, I have huge confidence in this generation.

But they’re still only a tiny sliver of te iwi Māori as a whole, and they do tend to become quite isolated. We tend to send them into big organisations on their own and not think about the support systems that they need to be successful in their own right. So, I worry about that for some of our bright stars.

Our organisations can do better by the kōhanga and kura generation by giving them the power to lead and to build the teams they need to bring te ao Māori safely and authentically into their places of work.

Glenis (right) with her sisters Jennifer and Fiona.

You must be proud of your own kids who, with your encouragement, have gone on to feel comfortable in te reo. What is Nick’s position when it comes to advocating and celebrating te reo Māori? 

I ask that, Glenis, because I have a Pākehā wāhine. And, while she’s not a fluent speaker, she goes well beyond careful pronunciation — and her efforts feel at times like an endorsement of us and of me and of our reo. I wonder if Nick’s attitude to the reo offers a similar endorsement.

Yeah. Nick will greet everyone with “Kia ora”. That’s his mihi everywhere. We can be walking down the street in the middle of Korea and he’ll say “Kia ora” to everybody coming towards him. He’ll make eye contact with complete strangers in the middle of Auckland and say “Kia ora” to them.

People assume he’s Māori because of his Lebanese colouring. But he’s definitely Lebanese. He knows how to work on the marae as part of our wider whānau. And before him, I saw my father doing the same thing. You know, willing to do his share as part of the wider whānau.

These are all things that point to the goodness of a person, their ability to hop in and do that work. Being married to someone who is Māori offers an opportunity to be part of a whānau which is awesome I think.

What I love about these men in our whānau who aren’t Māori is that they’ll intervene in any unfortunate racist conversations about the value of te reo or anything else. They’ll defend the choice that we made to send our kids to kōhanga and kura. And they’re so proud that many of the tamariki of our whānau are lucky enough to speak te reo Māori.

Beautiful. Can we talk now about Tuia 250 and the efforts to find appropriate ways of commemorating the James Cook visits more than two centuries ago. That was a polarising issue for many New Zealanders, because there was such a mixture of good and bad in the subsequent merging of the two peoples.

We were lucky enough to have a year to prepare our community for the idea that it was way past the time for New Zealanders to start understanding the truth of our history. It’s a painful, unpalatable truth — and a truth that an entire system has invested years and billions of dollars in keeping under the rug.

So lifting the rug required a considered approach. Step one was getting people thinking and talking about racism and the impact of colonisation through a range of conversations, large and small. And not just here in Aotearoa but also around the world.

Having those scene-setting, context-setting conversations everywhere was our work in the first year. Most people, through no fault of their own, have no clue about the true history of this country. We were all taught nothing at all about any of it, and most people were keen to learn and genuinely curious about what Aotearoa was like before the arrival of James Cook.

We also launched a Radio New Zealand programme called “Awkward Conversations” that invited people with different experiences of racism to talk about that. We felt that was pretty successful, but I think it’s just a drop in the bucket when you consider what still needs to happen.

If you’re going to bring polarised parties into a conversation about racism and colonisation, you have to be clear about what you’re doing, and why you’re doing it.

For us, the why was really straightforward. We’re imagining a better future for our mokopuna. We have no desire to perpetuate the lies of colonialism. Everyone deserves to know what happened here, how it’s affected us all, and how we can work for a more just future.

With Judge Andrew Becroft, Children’s Commissioner. (RNZ/Dom Thomas)

Let’s turn to the role you now have as the Māori Children’s Commissioner. That means, of course, working with Andrew Becroft who’s been the Children’s Commissioner for the last few years.  

I’ve spoken many times with him and sense in him a well-read, compassionate man with strong convictions. He was the one who saw the need for a Māori Children’s Commissioner — and who’s done something about it. And here you are, the first appointee. What is it about that work that drew you to the job?

Well, it takes a lot to dig me out of Tairāwhiti. I first saw a reference to the opportunity on Facebook where Andrew, in his open and engaging way, was talking about his vision for this role. And I thought: “That looks intriguing.” So I applied.

Andrew is a former principal judge of the youth court and one of the instigators of the rangatahi courts. And he sees not only the importance of culture and identity for people but also sees Te Tiriti being an agreement between equals — and that tamariki Māori ought not be left behind or be worse off than other tamariki.

The fact of the matter is that tamariki Māori are far worse off than their non-Māori peers, and we know that racism plays a huge part in this. We’re now working on an anti-racism journey for Aotearoa whānui, which includes an invitation to my colleagues at Oranga Tamariki to consider what that journey will look like for them. The children of Aotearoa deserve nothing less.

A lot of people don’t realise how racist they are because they’ve never really been forced to consider other cultures. They may have been raised in a Pākehā suburb or gone to an almost exclusively Pākehā school. And they haven’t had the privilege of multiple, multicultural interactions and relationships in their upbringing. 

Unfortunately, that’s the experience of many of our decision-makers. Some may have their academic qualifications, but they still don’t have much by way of cultural ammo to put into their kit. And when we ask people to look inside themselves at some of their own history and behaviour, it can be quite confronting. But it’s a necessary mahi. Is that what you’re asking those at Oranga Tamariki to do? To try and change the culture from within?

Absolutely. I think there’s a certain level of introspection required at an individual leadership level as well. Being exposed to diversity is one thing, but it’s those racist assumptions that sit just below the surface that do the daily damage and drive behaviour.

I mean, why is it that, if a young Māori man is walking towards us, some people feel unsafe? Let’s say you don’t know this young man. He’s a stranger to you. Why is it that your first response upon seeing him is to feel anxious? Why is it that you’re reaching for your keys or clutching your purse a little more firmly?

This is a common experience for many, many people. We automatically assume that he could potentially do us harm when, of course, we know nothing about him.

Now imagine how that reaction feels for that young Māori man over his lifetime? It’s just devastating for a young person to feel like the whole world assumes that you’re no good — that you’re criminally inclined or someone to be feared. That’s racism on the daily for so many, and it adds up over time.

My feeling is that your appointment is part of an ongoing, incremental and positive change. I know we’ve got a long way to go, but there are encouraging signs. There’s your appointment, there’s the planning for more focus on New Zealand history in our schools, there’s more reo, and there’s more interest in Matariki. When you band together all these and other changes, do you feel that, as a nation, we’re moving in a positive direction? 

Oh yes. I can feel the momentum building all around us. It feels like a blossoming of respect for te ao Māori and the richness that it brings. And that’s leading to a much more open attitude that tamariki Māori need to experience in their world so they can reach their potential.

It seems like we’re on the brink of something good, although I’m mindful always that we shouldn’t spend too much time patting ourselves on the back about our progress. Ki te hoe Aotearoa!

Reporua Marae on Nov 1, 2020 when Ngāti Rangi (my hapū) welcomed Judge Becroft and staff from OCC to our Marae and celebrated my appointment as the first Assistant Māori Commissioner for Children

At Reporua Marae in Ruatōria, Gisborne, on November 1, when Ngāti Rangi welcomed Children’s Commissioner Judge Becroft and staff to celebrate Glenis’s appointment as the first Assistant Māori Commissioner for Children.

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

© E-Tangata, 2020

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