One of John Bishara’s great-grandfathers beat the present-day refugee scramble out of Syria by a considerable margin. He made it here more than a century ago. And that move has led on, after a host of family challenges and detours, to John being at the helm of Te Mangai Paho, which manages the funding and development of Maori broadcasting. As he explains to Dale, he’s been travelling down an unlikely path.
Bishara isn’t the most common of names, is it? What can you tell us about the origins of the Bishara clan?
Samuel Bishara, my great-grandfather, migrated here in the early 1900s. So did the young woman he married, Sarah Kitchener. They used to say the Bishara clan was Lebanese and we were Jews. However, Samuel was actually Salim Bechara, who was Syrian. Christian Syrian, as a matter of fact. His oldest son was Jack Bishara, whose first wife (Zeta Paul) had my dad’s two older brothers, Tiny and John Bishara. Jack’s second wife was Ngahuia (Ruby) Downs and the Bisharas from that marriage have been Māoris from Tokaanu ever since.
Are you familiar with Sam’s village and background in Syria, and his motives for moving to the other side of the world?
Not exactly. We know that those late 1800s early 1900s were a time of turmoil in the Middle East, and that people were being shipped out. They were sent to places like the USA and Australia where partisan groups provided documents to ease their entry into other countries. And Samuel had a birth certificate saying he was born in Australia. I’m bloody lucky that Jack married Ngahuia or else I could’ve been seen as an overstayer.
What did Samuel get up to once he’d settled in New Zealand? We’re talking 100 years or so ago, aren’t we?
Ae. Sam was a very successful and influential businessman who had a variety of businesses in and around Taumarunui, where he is buried. His son, Jack, my grandfather, was also a businessman running native sawmills in and around the Ngati Tuwharetoa area. In the late 1950s, as the native mills slowed, Jack and my dad (and the rest of the whanau) moved to Tauranga where Jack had a petrol station, a garage and lots of other stuff.
I was born in Tauranga in 1956 and was brought up by Jack and Ruby (my grandparents), with my mum and dad Eddie (Koro) and Mana (Manaiawharepu Tamaira) living just down the road. Eddie had partnered up with his father, Jack, in the garage and car sales business — and they still had the timber yard as well.
But, in 1963, we came back to Tokaanu where Eddie was a trucking contractor, taxi driver, barman (and very good customer), tunneller, ran a petrol station, and was a firewood merchant too.
Me and my brother would deliver coal, in bags bigger than ourselves, to coal boxes around our village. I recall the old man telling us to “get the bag balanced on your back, then use your legs.”
Back at “home” we were realising our Māori side but my kuia always made sure we never forgot the whanau of our koro, Jack Bishara.
It didn’t seem a big issue as we were always surrounded by whanau in those days. There were always heaps from home staying with us in Tauranga, including most of my dad’s siblings and their whanau. Our old man had seven siblings. Mum was one of four. And, in our family, I’m the second oldest of five.
What about your schooldays, John? Good fun?
Not at all. I didn’t like school — and school didn’t seem to like me. I seemed to be tripping back and forth, to and from various schools in Tokaanu, Tauranga, Turangi, Otukou and Papakai. And then, early in the fifth form, I left Tongariro High School (which used to be Tokaanu District High School). But the old man sent me back to finish some of that year.
I reckoned there were far better things to do than go to school. Turangi was a new town in those days, with the advent of the Tongariro power project. There were tunnels and dams and lakes and canals. There were huge machines, trucks, bulldozers and motor-scrapers. And then there were the rugby and rugby league teams. So I couldn’t see why you could possibly need school and a classroom education. A very early mistake of mine.
We used to wag school to watch the motor-scrapers and all the other machinery at work. We were really intrigued by that. Well, I was anyway — and school just didn’t seem to be important.
We had some great teachers though, including my first teachers, the nuns at St Mary’s Convent in Tauranga. They wore their habits but they still taught us how to play rugby — and win.
But there were all these jobs available and they were a big attraction. Dad didn’t share my point of view though. He said: “No. You go and get a trade.” So I went into the Māori Affairs trade training scheme as an apprentice motor mechanic at Te Rahui Tane in Hamilton.
Okay. So you’re 16 now and up in Hamilton, in the Waikato. What were your next moves?
Well, after that first year of training, I wasn’t able to secure a full-time apprenticeship, and I ended up at the Affco Freezing Works in Horotiu. That meant much more money and much more excitement. And trouble.
So … I ended up back in Turangi. But, instead of landing a job with the Ministry of Works, or with Downers [the big construction firm], the old man had me planting pine trees for the New Zealand Forest Service. That was the worst job in Turangi at the time. But that led to a 14-year forestry career.
I was a labourer at Lake Taupo Forest in Turangi, then two years at the Woodsman Training School at Kaingaroa Forest. That was a great grounding for me, and I still love that place. Next I was transferred to Mohaka Forest in the Hawke’s Bay. And I ended my Forest Service career as a Ranger in Kaweka State Forest Park .
Man, I loved working in the bush. For me it was like a picnic in the bush every day. But, hey! When I’m sitting in my cosy Wellington office and looking out at the wind and rain, I think: “Aw. Nah.”
And what of your family life with Gloria?
I met my wife, Gloria, in 1976 and we ended up together until she passed away just over six years ago. She was Gloria Taumata, originally from Mohaka and Mahia, and we lived in Whakatu in Hastings. That’s still our family home and I love going back there — back to our whanau in Whakatu.
Gloria had four children from an earlier marriage and we had one daughter, Shontelle. But we brought up all of them as one whanau, plus a couple of other nieces and nephews over the years. Gloria was the rock for our whanau. She got us all involved — youth club, sports teams, schools and so on, in and around our Whakatu community. Haumoana, Waipatu, Kohupatiki and Matahiwi — and always back to Wairoa, Takitimu and Waihirere Road. And the “back road” to Rakato and Mahia where Gloria’s whanau lived. So, for a very long time, Hawke’s Bay became my turangawaewae.
I understand that, after that work as a forest ranger, over the next 10 years or so, you made a few other moves.
Ae. That’s true. My next job was as the GELS Officer for Hawke’s Bay. You’ll remember that was the Government’s Group Employment Liaison Scheme which had involved liaising with the gangs.
Denis O’Reilly was the CEO based in Wellington in the head office of the Department of Labour and he had about 25 field workers throughout the country. I did field-worker mahi for about three years and then ended up in management in Wellington — as ops manager for Denis and the Labour Department and, later, for the NZ Employment Service. After that, I was a regional manager for CEG [Community Employment Group] with Parekura Horomia, before he went into politics, as our general manager. Then, when they shut down CEG I worked for WINZ (Work and Income NZ) in the Bay of Plenty. But, along the way, there was a lot of restructuring. It happened to me maybe four or five times. You sort of get used to it after a while.
That WINZ job, I imagine, would’ve been difficult because you’d be witnessing our people battling along and dealing with hardships that you’d been spared because, by comparison, you’d had a pretty charmed life. Solid whanau. Regular employment.
Yeah. It wasn’t a pleasant experience. And I was an absolutely reluctant participant in the new WINZ. It was a merger of Income Support and the Department of Labour. I was pretty grumpy about that because the Community Employment Group, where I’d been a regional manager, was one of those organisations doing a great job. And the Employment Service had been really good at getting people into work as well.
But there were huge changes to cope with, such as when the Whakatu works closed in 1986. That devastated our communities in the Hawke’s Bay. Particularly in Whakatu. And, in 1987, I saw the effects of privatisation where all our forestry villages and towns closed down — and where a huge number of people in the Ministry of Works and the New Zealand Railways were affected.
A number of other freezing works started to close, and I suppose some of us sort of took it personally. But we said: “Let’s not cry about it. Let’s just get in and do something about it.”
We were driven by the aim of not ever letting a government policy have a devastating impact on the people. But we were pissing against the wind because, for every policy that government starts, there’s nearly always a social outcome. There are always winners and losers.
If, for instance, you’re gonna close the New Zealand Forest Service in the name of greater efficiency, then you’re gonna have a huge number of people out of work or requiring re-skilling and or re-training. So you’d better have systems and processes in place to deal with that — and to make sure that our country is still able to operate. As I say, maybe we were just pissing into the wind.
You’ve got a high profile mahi now as the head of Te Mangai Paho, which rides herd on the funding for Maori broadcasting. That’s still in its infancy though, isn’t it? But at least it’s been able to look at some of the positive aspects of te ao Maori — unlike the mainstream media which likes to talk about our failures.
It’s an exciting dimension to my career. And it’s exciting in that we — that’s me and you and everyone else in Maori broadcasting — are doing two things. We’re retaining, and building and revitalising our language and our culture. And the other thing is that we’re providing not just a medium to demonstrate who we are, but the opportunity for people to come and have a look. To see what we are.
And, economically today, Māori are a key component. The super powers, China and India for instance, can do business with anyone in the world. But they choose to do business with New Zealand because they’re really interested in the indigenous people of New Zealand. They want to see the brown faces.
So we’ve got a responsibility to continue to practise our language and our culture and carry on being who we are — and to provide a brand for Aotearoa. And broadcasting is a really good means for us to promote ourselves and tell our story.
But there’s still a question over the size of the pool of resources for Maori broadcasting — especially with 22 iwi stations naturally wanting a bigger slice of the pie — and wanting a bigger pie, too.
I think we’ve sort of got enough resources today. And, if we maximise what we have, there’ll be an opportunity to go back to the government for more. My experience is that consecutive governments, the ones I’ve worked with anyway, fully support our Māori language struggles. They do get a bit windy, a bit nervous, when things go wrong. But things don’t go wrong as often as they used to. Not as far as I can see anyway.
And their confidence is growing as the new technology and the new media create more opportunities for learning and up-skilling. Broadcasting is a very powerful tool, and we’re now in a position to change the negative stereotyping that has been putting us down.
As I see it, there’s now a huge amount of confidence in what we’ve been creating. And there’s more and more support from mainstream New Zealanders for what Māori have to offer and for what we’re trying to achieve.
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 non-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 contributing $5 or $10 a month.