All Black Bryan (“Bee Gee”) Williams made a big impression on young Mike Mika. The first Sāmoan All Black was also a lawyer — and that pretty much sealed the deal on Mike’s career choice. Now he’s the first Pasifika district court judge in Wellington. And, just like Bee Gee, he managed to fit in a bit of rugby along the way — playing for Manu Sāmoa between 1995 and 1999, including in two world cups, and for the Highlanders and then Coventry in the UK (where he also practised law). Here’s Mike talking to Dale about his path into the judiciary.
Talofa, Mike. Let’s hear about your folks, their villages, and their journey to Aotearoa. Can we start with your names and how you got to carry them?
My full name is Michael Alaifatu Mika. Mum is from the village of Lepa in Aleipata, on the south coast of Upolu. Her dad, my grandfather, was Alaifatu Fatialofa. So that’s how I got my middle name. Mika is my surname and that’s from my father Salafai’s side. His village is Vailoa in Apia. And his father was a Methodist church minister in Vailoa.
My parents met in New Zealand, but they travelled here separately in the early 1960s. I think Mum came first in ‘63 and then Dad in ‘64. It was a journey that a lot of our Polynesian fathers and mothers did back then. The dream was to come, seek opportunities, work and get money to send back to the ‘āiga in the islands.
Dad had started his training as a Methodist church minister in Piula, in Sāmoa. When he came over, he curtailed his studies, started working in factories and eventually ended up working for Downer as a carpenter.
They met in Wellington, at a church social.
How many tamariki in the whānau?
There’s three of us boys. I’m the oldest, born in 1968, and then my brother Waitangi Fiagatusa Mika was born in 1974. Waitangi got his name because he was born on the first public holiday to commemorate Waitangi Day in 1974. Our youngest brother is Salapai Junior who was born in 1981.
And where was the whānau raised?
We were all born in Lower Hutt, and when I was four, we moved to Upper Hutt. When I was young, Mum and Dad were responsible for getting a lot of their siblings and their family over to New Zealand. When we moved to Upper Hutt from Alicetown, I remember living with my uncle and aunty who had just come over from Sāmoa.
Were your Mum and Dad able to buy a whare to raise you guys in?
Yes. That’s why we made the move to Upper Hutt. They bought one of the first houses in Totara Park. That was when Upper Hutt was one of the new subdivisions in the early to mid ‘70s.
We were up at Upper Hutt until I was in the fourth form. Mum was working as a cleaner and doing different factory jobs, and Dad was still a carpenter. But then, in my fifth form, he went back to the ministry. He re-trained up at St John’s College in Auckland.
The church features prominently in the lives of Sāmoan people, doesn’t it?
Oh, absolutely. The church plays an integral part in the lives of most Pacific Island people. It’s about service. You see what your parents do for others, and my parents are no different. They always put others first.
There’s a Sāmoan proverb: ‘O le ala ‘i le pule le tautua. The road to leadership is through service. It took me a while to understand that, but that’s what our parents taught us.
Did you grow up with Māori mates? I imagine they were eating boil-up while you were eating taro.
When we moved to Totara Park, we were the only Pacific Island family out there. But the Huia whānau, the Kapeni whānau, the Walkers were the Māori whānau in Totara Park — and they were all our mates.
Yeah, they had boil-up, although no taro for us, Dale. Taro was too expensive in Wellington. In Upper Hutt, it was predominantly Pākehā/Pālagi, but there were Māori families too, and us. And I had a great childhood there.
Māori and Pasifika people have a lot in common, don’t we? But do you sense that we could be even closer, as people of the Pacific?
When I was younger, there were the Sāmoans, and there were the Tongans, and there were the Māori. We all kept our separate identities. I think it was a particular point for Pasifika in protecting our culture and language.
As time’s gone on, we’ve recognised that we’re all Polynesian. We’re all Pacific Islanders, and we share lots of values and traits. Respect for elders and service, for example. And, as we grow as a nation, we can see that we have many more similarities than differences.
How’s your reo Hāmoa, Mike? Did Mum and Dad speak Sāmoan with you at home?
Yes, that’s one of the gifts that our parents gave me and my brothers. When we were growing up, we weren’t allowed to speak English at home. Mum and Dad were of the view that you can speak English when you go to school, and that’s why you go to school.
I’d say that I’m a fluent conversationalist. But certainly not an orator. That high language is for the chiefs and the important people. My brothers and I are thankful to our parents for giving us the ability to speak Sāmoan. It’s so important to be able to speak, especially to our older folk who don’t speak Pālagi or English.
And what of your own family and children?
I met my wife Jane at university. She’s Pālagi and a teacher, and we have a son, Jacob, who’s in Year 13 this year. One of my regrets is that I haven’t persisted with the Sāmoan language with him.
He’s off to Otago University next year and he’s really looking forward to joining the Sāmoan Students’ Association there. He wants to know more about his Sāmoan culture and heritage, particularly the language.
Mike, you’ve had academic success on your way to your career in law — as a lawyer and now as a judge. Did study come easy for you, or were you a grafter?
No, it was never easy for me. It was always hard work. I wasn’t one of these kids who could do well in exams. I had to work. I was certainly not going to be invited to join Mensa or anything like that. So, I was a grafter, Dale.
Where did you go to secondary school?
Secondary school for me was Upper Hutt College at first, and then, when we moved up to Auckland, I went to Selwyn College because that was the closest high school to St John’s where we lived. Both co-ed schools.
Then you decided to go to Otago for university. That was a long way from the hood in Lower Hutt.
Yeah, it was. Part of the reason was that Mum and Dad’s first parish was in Dunedin, so, in my first year of varsity, we all went to Dunedin.
Were you immediately drawn into law? Was that how it rolled for you?
I grew up as a young Sāmoan kid watching rugby, and Bryan Williams was my idol. I’ve been fortunate enough to work on judiciary panels with Eroni Clarke and we share the same story. I saw that Bryan was a lawyer, and so there we had the first Sāmoan All Black who was also a lawyer, and I thought: “Man! That is really something.”
My family and the church people I was growing up with were all factory workers or working on building sites, or cleaners — and here’s this guy who’s a lawyer. I thought: “That’s awesome. That’s something to aspire to.”
At the same time, Mum and Dad pushed the importance of education for us. For them, it was all about education, not sport. You had to do your schoolwork and get good grades before you did sports.
So, between Bryan and our parents’ views on education, that’s what steered me towards law.
You had a career in rugby and you spent a couple of years in England. Were you qualified before you went offshore with your rugby?
Yes, I was. I did a history degree as well as the law degree. I finished both my degrees in 1995 and then did profs in ‘96. I was one of the fortunate ones who’d just finished my studies before rugby went full-time professional.
I had three years of Super Rugby with the Highlanders in Dunedin and then went overseas after that. But I was fully qualified and actually started work for a firm in Dunedin, O’Driscoll & Marks. One of the partners from then is now Judge Stephen O’Driscoll in Christchurch.
So, when I went overseas, I was able to work as a lawyer. We were playing for Coventry RFC in the second division then — the tier just under the premiership — and I was able to work part-time in a solicitor’s firm.
Fortunately for me, I was able to play rugby, too, but I knew all along that my career was going to be in the law, although rugby was always going to be part of my life.
I’m intrigued and pleased that you studied history because, sadly, we haven’t had enough of our students doing that. What do you make of these current moves to teach much more of our history in our schools from next year?
I think it’s vital. It’s important for us as a nation to know our Māori history, initially, and then the story of the Pacific migration and the migrations that followed from there. It’s especially important that our students, regardless of their level of education, get exposed to that side of our history, which we didn’t get when we were in school.
Let’s take a closer look now at your career, a significant one too, as a rugby player. When did you first put on a pair of footy boots? Were you brave and fast and strong and tenacious when you started?
I think I was eight years old when I joined the Upper Hutt rugby club. And no. I wasn’t tenacious, fast or strong at all. I was a roly-poly eight-year-old Sāmoan kid — always in the forwards.
I used to play in the forwards as well, and I still hear the commentators on the TV speaking disparagingly about forwards, props in particular, as being thickos or whatever.
Yeah, referring to us as concrete mixers. I just smile now, Dale. I just smile.
You didn’t fare too badly, though, did you, when you made it into international rugby? Playing 15 or so games for Sāmoa. I imagine you had some thrilling moments in Sāmoa’s blue jersey.
Yes. There were a few. Obviously being named in the national team. Then actually pulling on the jersey. Going to my first tour camp. And being in the same room with legends like Peter “Fats” Fatialofa, To’o Vaega, Sila Vaifale.
These guys went to the ’91 World Cup that put Western Sāmoa on the map. And I was feeling: “Jeepers. I can’t believe this is happening. Jeepers. Am I good enough to be in this room?”
Also running out when I had my first game for Sāmoa felt unreal. Feeling so grateful for the opportunity, and for the support of my ‘āiga and all our elders and church people. Then qualifying for the quarter finals in the ’95 World Cup. That was another highlight.
Every footy team has its guitarists and singers — and memorable characters. Who left an impression on you?
Probably the most memorable guy on the guitar was “Bee Gee” Williams himself when he was coaching Sāmoa in those years when I was playing. He was absolutely amazing, that guy.
He knew all the old songs. And all the Sāmoan teams that I was involved in could sing. I suppose it’s because we all went to pese or choir practice. But, oh, man, everyone could sing. Most nights, we’d have devotions and the singing would be just unreal.
After many years as a lawyer, you had the opportunity to be the first Pasifika guy appointed to the bench in Wellington. You wore both a lei and a hei tiki at the swearing in ceremony. Can you tell me about that day?
It was special. It was more a day for Mum and Dad. It was just a great acknowledgment of their sacrifices.
The lei, the ula, I wore was made by my brother’s wife, Sia, especially for our mihi whakatau in Invercargill. The hei tiki was a present from good friends in Invercargill. It just felt right. There was no real thinking about it to be fair. It just felt right to wear both.
What advice do you have for young Pasifika people who may be inspired by your success in sport or law?
There are opportunities there for them, and education is so important. Get to varsity, if that’s your strength, if that’s your gig. But, by the same token, if it’s not, then trades are just as important.
The trades used to be looked down upon — being a chippie, a plumber, or sparky or whatever. The important thing I want to pass on to our young people, not just our Māori and Pasifika, but all young people, is that, if varsity isn’t your thing, get into trades. Or just get into something.
The opportunities are there. Things may be tough, but they’re gonna be tougher if you don’t do something. So this would be my message: Whatever it is, make sure you do something.
Like many other successful men, you have a very supportive wahine. Tell us about Jane, your wife.
I pay tribute to Jane. She’s been the rock of the relationship. She’s the strong one in our whānau — the one always encouraging, always supportive, in whatever we’ve decided to do.
We went to the UK because I’d suffered an injury over here — and, to get back into the 1999 World Cup squad, I had to play rugby somewhere. We had a house in Dunedin. I got the call on a Tuesday and I was on the plane to Coventry in the UK on the Thursday. Jane was 100 percent behind that.
She was left to sort out our house in Dunedin and make all those travel arrangements. And she did that again in our move back to New Zealand from the UK. Our son Jacob was born in the UK and that was a catalyst to come back home.
I’d been working in criminal defence up until then. But when we came back, I wanted to try the other side, and work for the Crown. And, in 2003, the only Crown office that was hiring was in Invercargill. It was Mary-Jane Thomas, the first female Crown Solicitor that had ever been appointed, and she hired me on a telephone interview.
And Jane just said: “Well, if that’s what you want to do, that’s what we’ll do.” So we packed up our two-month old and went to Invercargill.
When we talked about the possibility of me applying for the bench, she was always supportive. So, she’s once again organising selling the house and getting all those things sorted so I can do this role that I’m now doing.
Without Jane — and I’m not overstating this — but, without Jane, I wouldn’t be doing this. There you go, it’s her fault (laughs).
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
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