Kerensa Johnston, the first chief executive of Wakatū appointed from within the family.

As chief executive of the Nelson-based, Māori-owned Wakatū Incorporation, Kerensa Johnston has a few interesting challenges in front of her.

One of them is getting the government to the table to talk about the more than 15,000 acres of land — known as the Tenths Reserves — which was promised by the New Zealand Company in the 1800s to hapū in the Nelson area, and ultimately reneged on. 

Today, the descendants of many of those original families are shareholders of Wakatū. And, as Kerensa tells Dale, they’re not going anywhere.


Kia ora, Kerensa. Now that’s such an unusual name, I could be forgiven for assuming that I’m greeting a Spanish señora.

Yes, it sounds exotic, doesn’t it? It’s an old Spanish word that means love. My mum just liked the name, but I’ve got no Spanish whakapapa whatsoever. Which sometimes led to disappointment when I was younger and people would ask if I was Spanish, and I’d say, “No I’m Māori!”

And what are those Māori connections?

They’re from my dad’s side. He was born and raised in south Taranaki, in Manaia, until he was about 17. Then, like most Māori his age, he went off to find work. He worked on the hydroelectric power scheme in Taupo, and that’s when he met my mum. She’s from Scotland.

They split up when you were young, right?

I was about three when Dad went to Canada and ended up settling on Vancouver Island — and he came back only every now and again after that. My Māori side developed through the relationships I had with my aunties and cousins.

I’m curious about this strong sense of taha Māori that you carry and how that came about.

I was lucky to be brought up by mum and my grandmother. They were both really strong-minded Scottish women, but they always kept me focused on my Māori side. They’d remind me how important it was to be proud of who I am as Māori.

We lived in Rotorua, in the heart of Te Arawa. It’s quite a tricky thing growing up in somebody else’s traditional rohe, particularly when it’s somewhere like Te Arawa which is so strongly hapū-based and grounded in its own identity. It wasn’t until I went to university in Wellington that I developed a strong personal relationship with my aunties and my cousins in Taranaki.

Up until that time, it was my mum who kept that relationship alive. I was a typical teenager who wasn’t that keen on travelling to Taranaki from Rotorua to see my family. It was Mum who kept those connections alive, and it meant that, when I got to Victoria, it was easy for me to reconnect with them and start making regular trips backwards and forwards to Taranaki. That was the pivotal time for me in understanding my Māori side.

What does that say of your mum?

I think she just knew how important it was in the 1970s and the ’80s, when it wasn’t cool to be Māori. She never believed that. She knew how important it was to my own identity. She and my grandmother were always getting books out of the library about the Taranaki wars and other history, and they’d talk to me about that.

It was quite an academic way of keeping those stories alive for me. But, as it turned out, I went on to do a law degree and a history degree specialising in New Zealand history. So there must’ve been something in those early conversations that sparked that interest for me.

And no doubt the well-documented injustices of Taranaki still play on your mind. How have they affected your attitude to taha Māori?

At university, I once wrote an essay on Māori perceptions of Māori in the media, and I looked right back to the early 1800s at cartoons and newspaper stories about us, right through to the Billy T James era. I got an A for the essay, and Jamie Belich, who was my lecturer for that course, noted on my essay that I needed to learn how to not be so angry when I write. I had to try and be a little bit more objective.

I still struggle with that. I still feel real anger at times about things that have happened, and I think the trick is trying to channel that anger into constructive action to resolve those injustices. There’s still a lot that we have to do, but to do it as positively as we can is an aim for me.

You wanted to be a lawyer from a young age. Why was that?

I was 11 and my best friend at the time was a girl from Te Arawa. She was one of the few really privileged ones, I guess. She travelled a lot, and she had this world that was just so alien to the world that I lived in. Her dad was Māori. He was a lawyer, and it was through him that I could glimpse this different world, full of activity and opportunity. It was really through my friend and her family that I saw the possibility that I could go to university and do something like that.

We didn’t have any money, and Mum spent the best part of my sixth form year applying for every scholarship that she could find to get me to university. Again, that’s where my taha Māori side really came to the fore. It was through those scholarships that I was able to activate relationships with my family, so I’ve always been a big advocate of the scholarship programmes for our tauira, especially for those who’ve lost their connection with their whānau and hapū.

It’s one way that they can reconnect and become part of that whānau again. But they must understand that the scholarship comes with a responsibility. You can’t just take the money and go off and do your thing, never to be seen again. You have to have that attitude of reciprocity.

Do you feel that you have reciprocated?

My role with Wakatū is to think about the long-term implications of the decisions we make now. Right now, we’re examining the issue of what it means to be a kaitiaki when you’re in the primary industry. What is our role and responsibility now and to future generations? I hope I’m making a positive contribution in that respect.

Kerensa with Bob Shore (left), chairman of Wakatū’s Whenua board.

Kerensa, along the way, sometimes through the people we meet, or perhaps with books we’ve read or films we’ve seen, we have lightbulb moments. Has that been your experience?

I really appreciate books by or about our tūpuna, like the biography of Te Puea, as an example. And just recently I was looking again at the letters that went backwards and forwards between Te Rangi Hiroa and Āpirana Ngata — and there’s so much wisdom and depth of thinking there.

It’s such an antidote to the kind of commentary you see on social media now. When you look at what our kaumātua wrote, the analysis that they produced, it’s just so inspiring to me.

I’m also lucky to have wonderful mentors and kaumātua around me. Rore Stafford is our kaumātua at Wakatū, and he’s one of those people that, when he’s in the room, you know the right decisions will be made. He has that kind of mana and impact. And there are a few other people around who are like that, who really are indispensable.

No doubt you’ve been guided, too, by some strong legal and cultural minds. Annette Sykes is one who stands out.

People like Annette and Moana Jackson and Aroha Mead are just so visionary and progressive, pushing our thinking beyond what appears to be achievable. A danger for Māori lawyers in particular, especially if we go and work in the traditional places like law firms or Crown Law, is that you can become quite timid and institutionalised in your thinking.

Do you think that sometimes visionary people don’t see their ambitions realised in their own lifetime?

Absolutely. At Wakatū, we often talk about how we’re just one step in this very long legacy. One of the things our chairman, Paul Morgan likes to do when we meet customers from overseas is to say: “Look, if you do a deal with us, you can call us in 200 years’ time and we’ll still be here. Someone will pick up the telephone.” They look at us strangely, but it’s a great way of thinking.

Wakatū’s forward planning is especially interesting. Years ago, people were surprised by Raukawa’s 25-year strategy to revitalise their reo Māori. But Wakatū is looking way further ahead than that.

Ours is Te Pae Tawhiti, a 500-year plan. It was a challenge that came from the board about seven years ago when they said: “We don’t want consultants to come in and do strategic plans with us. We want our whānau to work out what our intergenerational plans should look like.” So we spent two years working on that, had lots of wānanga, and interviews with kaumātua — and came up with our 500-year vision.

The challenge now is to figure out how to build it into all of our business decisions and activities across all of our 500 staff. We have to be able to reassure our whānau that these are our long-term goals, and this is what we’re doing this year that will get us closer to where we’re heading.

How does Māori cultural disadvantage affect this?

I think it’s changed a lot in the last 10 years. Māori and indigenous people around the world have never been stronger.

In this country, I see two camps. There are the ones who will probably never accept that they’re in a Treaty relationship with us and that we are the indigenous people of this place. Kei te pai. They’ll eventually be gone.

But there is this other cohort of tauiwi who want to be in a real partnership with us and are starting to understand the value of that and how it’s core to their identity as New Zealanders. So I’m really hopeful that that’s the kind of community and country that we’re building.

Let’s talk a bit about Wakatū. I understand that your appointment to run the organisation came as the result of some deliberate succession plans.

Again, this is the vision of the board and our kaumātua, in particular. They started this succession planning about 25 years ago, recognising the need to start preparing whānau to take on senior management and governance roles.

I came into the organisation 10 years ago as an associate director. I like to joke that it was the longest job interview in the world. They had eight years to assess me before I was offered the job as CEO, and I’m the first CEO to be appointed from the family.

Up until me, they had an external person who was in that role. It’s a really key part of our strategy to have our businesses run by our own people — and, for me, it was just an alignment of all the things I’ve worked on over my life, and all the things I care most deeply about. It brings together my legal background, my history background, my commercial background, and my love for us as Māori.

Not to mention your love of fresh produce.

Oh yes. That’s right. Don’t come into the role if you don’t like oysters or wine!

The Tohu winery in the Awatere Valley, Marlborough, a part of the Kono operation.

Your colleague from uni days, Rachel Taulelei, is CEO of Kono — the food and wine part of your business. So it looks like a bit of a wāhine takeover down there at Wakatū.

Rachel and I first met when we were 18, at Te Herenga Waka, the marae at Victoria University, and of course we didn’t know — in the way that a lot of young ones don’t know — that we were cousins. It wasn’t until much later that we discovered that we had the same whakapapa, too. So it’s a real strength to our relationship. It brings a lot of love and laughter to what we’re doing, and a lot of trust.

But, at the same time, you’ve got to work through all of those tricky things that can arise when you’re overseeing any business. It makes the role of the CEO a lot easier when you’re surrounded by people of huge capability, who share the same vision about the wellbeing of our whānau.

Were you both in the front row of the Wikitoria kapa haka team?

Not me. I was too busy studying!

Although things have been going well, I imagine there’ve been doubts. And setbacks.

Definitely, we’ve had setbacks as an organisation. There are many things that we do well and that we’re proud of. But we’ve also gone into business ventures that have failed. There’s always that risk with businesses. The most recent one was our significant investment in developing our flat oyster business, just at the time the bonamia ostreae parasite hit Marlborough Sounds.

As a result, MPI (Ministry of Primary Industries) removed all of our oyster stock. That delivered a blow to our business. But it’s a matter of resilience. We took a risk. So now, what can we learn from it? And how can we help others avoid some of the things we’ve experienced?

You’ve moved your whānau down to the top of the South Island, Te Tau Ihu. What do you love about living there?

The main reason we moved — and we moved before I had a job with Wakatū — was that I wanted my children to grow up in their traditional rohe. I wanted them to have a different experience from the one I had growing up, and for them to know their cousins and their marae and everything that comes with that. It’s been a really wonderful move for us.

Is there any achievement or strategy that you’ve championed which makes you especially proud?

I think it will be the work that we’re doing around kaitiakitanga. Over the last 12 months we’ve been doing a lot of work in our orchards and vineyards and factories to understand the impact of our activities on everything from how much waste we produce, to the quality of our water and what we’re putting on the land.

We’re growing a lot of fruit, for example, and a lot of grapes, and almost all of that is for the export market, which requires an export-ready spray regime and other requirements.

So we need to understand the impact of those activities on the whenua and on our people. These sorts of conversations are going on all round us at the moment and we are very focused on these questions.

The board set a goal last year of Wakatū being zero waste by 2028. I love it when they set these ambitious goals. So, whether it’s mussel shells from our mussel operations, or plastic from our packaging, we’re looking at all of that. How do we deal with that waste?

Whenua Matua Vineyard, Moutere.

Finally, and importantly, can you talk about the decision of Wakatū to use legal avenues rather than Treaty lines to try and get justice regarding the Tenths Reserves? It seems like successive governments have had selective amnesia about the promise that the New Zealand Company made to reserve more than 15,000 acres for hapū in your area.

Two years ago, the Supreme Court found that the Crown owed a duty to reserve 15,100 acres of land across the Nelson region and to protect our papakāinga and wāhi tapu lands.

Since then, we’ve been trying to work with the Crown to get them to come to the table to talk through a possible settlement with us — in effect, how is the Crown going to account for that loss to our families? It was a groundbreaking case in terms of recognising the Crown’s duty to our families.

The Crown is saying, we’ll just go back to the High Court and work through it there. But we’re saying: “No, we don’t want to go through another round of litigation. We’d rather sit down and work things through in a constructive way, and in a way that enhances our relationship.”

So that’s where we are with it. We’re just trying to get some traction with the attorney-general, David Parker, but we haven’t gotten far at all yet. It’s frustrating, actually. He just hasn’t made the time, and hasn’t recognised that this matter needs to be resolved and that the Supreme Court has acknowledged that the Crown has a duty which it has to fulfil.

But you have no doubts about the validity of your stance?

None at all. We’ll work through the court process if we have to, and we know that we will prevail. I mean, the Supreme Court has been quite clear that the duty exists. It’s just a matter of working out where the land is and how it’s going to be returned. We would like to resolve it sooner rather than later.

Given that there’s 15,000 acres at stake, it may be that amount of land won’t be available. So, if the Crown can’t return the land, I’m guessing that it’d have to be a substantial financial settlement.

We’ve done a lot of our own research, and we believe there is sufficient land available. Any other matters will have to be considered as they come up.

Ultimately this sits with the Crown to resolve, for the benefit of our whānau and hapū.

And, it wouldn’t just be for Wakatū shareholders. It would be for the benefit of all the trust beneficiaries — the traditional Māori landowners of our rohe. A number of our families have been severely affected by the Crown’s failure to fulfil its duty to reserve and protect our land.

A good outcome will resolve many issues for our families. It’s about our whakapapa, our role and responsibilities as kaitiaki — and, ultimately, our spiritual and cultural health and wellbeing into the future.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


© E-Tangata, 2019

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