We can’t do justice here to what Vitale Lafaele and his family have contributed since he landed in Auckland as a toddler, just over 60 years ago. But, as in so many Sāmoan families, he naturally absorbed the values of respect and service — and they shaped the path that he chose.
That path took him into the army, where he was a member of the elite SAS (one of only four to make it through in an intake of 300) — and then into the police where he spent 29 years before illness put an end to his career.
He didn’t welcome that enforced break, but, as he tells Dale in this conversation, it’s brought some unexpected benefits.
Tēnā koe, Vitale. Let’s start with you telling us about your village connections and your name, fa‘amolemole? I know you were a youngster when you came here, but I’m always impressed by the strong connections that still exist, even for New Zealand-born Sāmoan or Tongan people, with their home communities.
Of course, Dale. My dad was from Safotu in Savai‘i. And my mother is from the village of Falealupo, which is on Savai‘i as well. Mum and Dad both went from Savai‘i to Upolu in their earlier years just to be closer to Apia, the capital. That’s where you went for work and better schooling.
My parents settled in Mulivai, near the town. Dad looked after the Catholic priests at the Mulivai church. He made their breakfast and dinner and did their domestics — and they gifted my parents a little piece of land about a kilometre from Mulivai. That’s where Dad set up his little fale where the family stayed. They got married in 1955. And, whenever I go back to Sāmoa, I visit that small plot of land. I was born there and came to New Zealand when I was two. I’m still spiritually very connected to my homeland.
How did your connection with New Zealand come about?
There was a lot of pull for men to work in New Zealand back then. Dad came over around 1961 — and he worked at Hellabys, the freezing works, in South Auckland.
Because he was a good worker, they gave him a work permit after three months. So he went back home and gathered up the family. Mum had decided that New Zealand would be the best place for her family to grow and find opportunities. And they came over in December 1962.
In June that year, New Zealand gave Sāmoa back to Sāmoa and it became an independent country. Fearing that the borders would close, we came over that December and stayed in Herne Bay with the Malaisa family, who were friends of my mum and dad.
Back then, a lot of the jobs were either in Grey Lynn or out south where there were the freezing works, Bluebird Chips and so forth. Because we had connections in Herne Bay, we decided to stay there and my parents worked at Feltex, UEB and Tattersfield. That’s where our family started our mahi in Aotearoa.
Where do you fit in the whānau?
There’s Rosa, my eldest sister, who’s 67. Then Katalina, who’s 65 in January, and I’m 63. Then there’s Juanita (59). And the baby of the family is Eugene (53). I’m in the middle. I was born in April 1960, and we headed here when I was two.
Did your folks ever talk about hardships? A good many Pacific Island workers were brought out to fuel our factories. They were initially seen as a rich source of manual labour. But that’s changed over the decades. Suddenly, so it seems, we’re celebrating degrees and doctorates and professional success for many of their kids. It’s a rich story of Pacific migrants achieving and working their way into areas of prosperity. What are you most proud about when you look back at your story?
I’m proud that I was able to contribute, Dale. As you know, the two values of the fa’a-Samoa are respect and service. And, coming over here, I’ve been able to serve in the army, serve in the police, and I still serve with the Ministry of Social Development. My children too. My daughter Alex is a doctor. Dylan is a lawyer for Te Mata Law, working with the Treaty and the Waitangi Tribunal. And my youngest, Helena, works for the Ministry of Social Development as a case manager in Queen Street.
So, the fabric of serving has gone through me to my ‘āiga. And, my wife, Annette, has served for 34 years in the police. She’s now also spent about five years in the Ministry of Social Development. So, I’m proud that our legacy of service is deep within our whole family.
I’ve been impressed by the retention of reo among our Sāmoan people. I understand that Sāmoan is the third most spoken language in Aotearoa, behind English and te reo, and the second most spoken in Auckland. What does the language mean to you? Was it something that was just everyday for you? Or have you been conscious of the taonga that your reo can be when it’s protected?
It’s been difficult trying to retain our fa’a-Sāmoa, particularly when you’re practically New Zealand born, like I was, because I was two when we came. And Mum had this rule that we had to speak Pālagi in the house because, in her view, that was the only way we were going to learn Pālagi and think like Pālagi. She thought that’s how we were going to navigate life in New Zealand. Whereas Dad was really fa’a-Sāmoa in terms of tradition and language.
So we spoke English at home from the early years. We’d speak Sāmoan to Dad but everything else was in fa’a-Pālagi. When Dad passed away, I was in my early 20s and then it was just fa’a-Pālagi. After that, I made a conscious effort to retain my Sāmoan. My Uncle Patea told me that, if I wanted to retain the language, when I talked to him, it had to be fa’a-Sāmoa.
I struggled in the early days, but now I can proudly say I’m fluent. I spent eight weeks in Sāmoa with Alex, and it was like a full immersion. Now when I go to Sāmoa, I hear people say: “Oh look. He was basically born and bred in New Zealand, but his Sāmoan is so good.” And that’s really dear to me. So yes, Dale. I think holding on to our reo is so, so important.
Tēnā koe. Who were some of the teachers who helped to shape you? Who stands out for you as somebody who supported you?
Gary Taylor. He was my English teacher at St Paul’s College in Auckland. He went on to local politics in Waitakere. But I remember him as a gentle person who always had time to sit and teach us in a humble way. He’s a Pālagi, but he was able to tune in to Pasifika students and I found him to be very kind when I was in the third and fourth form. He was like that to all the Pasifika students. He was wonderful.
And another teacher was Brother David Lavin. He was so gentle and kind with all the Pacific students. He had so much time for us, and he treated us as equals.
I recall the 1970s as being difficult days because Māori didn’t really know what to make of Pasifika people, and Pasifika probably didn’t quite know what to make of Māori. Then there was the stain on our race relations that came from the Dawn Raids through that period. From my recollections, they were sort of testy times between Māori and Pacific people. What did you note as a young guy growing up?
Yeah, I found it was testy. I found that the acceptance of Pasifika, when I was growing up in the ‘60s and early parts of the ‘70s, was quite challenging. It was like: “Who are these people? They speak a different language.” It felt almost like Pākehā and Māori had ganged up on us Pasifika, although they hadn’t really. It took time for us to be accepted, Dale. So those days were tough.
But, when I joined the army, I connected with young Māori men who I got to know closely as a 20- to 23-year-old. And that brought a lot of healing because of the experiences I’d had growing up, and feeling like Māori didn’t want us here. And there hadn’t been the chance to change that impression. It was predominantly a Pasifika world at St Paul’s College. And when I left and joined the Ministry of Works, it was mostly Pasifika in those manual jobs.
So my first real exposure to Māori was when I joined the army. That’s when I really got to rub shoulders with Māori. And that brought joy to me, because I could see that we were all alike, and that we were all one people. It was beautiful, actually.
The army played that role in bringing us together because, when you’re in that situation, you’re not a Māori or a Sāmoan. You’re a soldier and you’re all brothers.
Can we touch on the Dawn Raids? Were you aware of what was going on?
No. I was 13 or 14, and I didn’t really understand what was happening. The first time I became aware of it was at school where I’d be teased: “Vitale, have you got your passport?” I didn’t know what they were talking about. Then I’d ask Mum and Dad, but they kept a lot of that away from us.
When I started to understand what was going on, it brought on real fear. We didn’t get police coming to our house or anything like that. But there was the fear that we could be sent back to Sāmoa, or that I could lose my parents at any time. It was quite frightening. If a police car drove past, you’d just look the other way. There was the joking and teasing around passports. And it created a tense and uncertain atmosphere. So, I kept my head down.
You had a career as a police officer and as a soldier in the SAS. I’ve no doubt that you dealt with some difficult kaupapa that could’ve triggered emotional or mental stress. Let’s start with the SAS first, please.
When I reflect on those times, I often wonder why I applied. There was no Google and internet then, and I didn’t even know what SAS stood for. But I knew it was an army campaign and it was associated with the police too.
I was in it full-time for a few years — a total of seven years, including my reserve service. The biggest thing for me was the training, and then not being able to release that tension when you don’t have active service.
For me, it was like being an All Black or being selected for the Olympics, and then you train and train and train, but you never compete. You get trained to the highest level. But you never go and fight your war. And the training was really intense. It was tough. Just tough.
I went through a lot of turmoil psychologically over that time. I had professional help and counselling, and it had an impact on Annette too.
Being in the SAS can make you a hard man. Were you still able to be a gentle dad?
Yeah, I was a gentle father. When I was raising my children, my aim was to give them everything that I hadn’t had. I remember my mum once saying to me when we first had Alex: “Son, give your kids everything you can because your Dad and I would’ve done that. But we just didn’t have it. So don’t deprive them of things, and don’t bring them up how you were brought up.”
And, from then on, I was thinking: “Well, I’ll just smother them.”
I never really got time with my parents when I was growing up. Never saw them. They were always working. They never came to my rugby games, apart from one. None of those things that you treasure as a child and as a young fulla. There were never any public congratulations when you achieved something.
We were the product of hard work — and all we saw was hard work. And, when I raised my children, I just gave them everything that I’d missed out on. So, I was there for them at their games and everything else. I didn’t spoil them rotten, but I thought: “Gosh, if only you knew how it was for us.”
Your military career morphed into a life in the police — and I’m conscious that, when you’re in the police, you see things that would make our heads spin. There’s an exposure to the darker aspects of community as a police officer. And I assume it’s important in that situation that you buffer your home life from your mahi, so that you can provide your whānau with the aroha they deserve. What do you say of the need to protect yourself emotionally from the realities you’re confronted with in your police work?
It’s very challenging when you’ve seen the carnage on the road. Attending cot deaths. Cases of sexual abuse. Being a senior detective investigator is really hard. I was in charge of sexual abuse cases at Waitakere. And you live with these families, you feel their pain, and you finally take them through to the High Court — and then sometimes there’s an acquittal. Your heart just sinks at those times. It’s so hard not to be affected emotionally.
But I learned that I had to be able to turn it off — or else I couldn’t continue. I had to be able to put a case to one side and move on, because there were so many other cases that I was required for. I couldn’t have survived otherwise.
You’re a very high achiever and I’m pleased that those who determine important positions have recognised your skills and have appointed you as a leader in many different areas of service. Such as the Counties Manukau South area commander — and being the first Sāmoan in that role. Being the first Pasifika in the armed offenders squad, special tactics group and anti-terrorist squad, and so on.
But when you sign up to the police or the army, if there’s a job to be done, I guess you’ve just got to do it even though personally you may have some different attitudes.
Whether I wear the blue or the green uniform and whatever our mahi is, it’s the values that are deep inside me, that guide me. And if it’s something that’s legislated and it’s something I’m bound to, I have no option.
Then I do it, with the utmost respect, humility and all the values that bind me in the mahi. That’s what gives me some peace — knowing that everything that I’ve done in the 30-odd years I’ve been in the army and police, have been done with my values guiding me.
I do a lot of interviewing, but when it comes to putting pen to paper, I struggle. So I have great respect for people who can turn their thoughts into an enjoyable read. And I’m glad that you’ve decided to put some thoughts together on paper. So here we have A Canoe Before the Wind — your story of a family, adversity, and courage. How did you go about that exercise?
When I first left the police in 2015, I was at home for two years because I had three strokes and heart surgery. That’s why I left the police. And over that two-year period, from 2015 to 2017, I was at home. I’d been let go from the police and I was sitting at home. I was in my 50s, and 30 percent legally blind. That’s why I had to leave the police.
I thought: “What do I do now?” And, because I enjoyed talking, and I enjoyed people, I sent an e-mail to Jim Hainey who runs the New Zealand Speakers Bureau. I said: “Hey, I’m a broken-down cop. How do you become a keynote speaker?” And, long story short, he taught me to become a keynote speaker on leadership and mindfulness and resilience.
That led on to me recording a Tedx talk a couple of years ago — and then to writing a book for Harper Collins. I’d started writing it in the two years that I was sitting at home, and when I was approached to write my story, I already had 10,000 words of a memoir. Because I thought that I was going to die, and I wanted my children and grandchildren to know me.
They’re personal memories of coming from Sāmoa, of my grandparents, of me, the way I was thinking, the way I did things, the way I behaved. So, if they were to read these memoirs in the years to come, I wanted them to read them like I’m sitting right beside them.
And here you are now as an author and as a mindful pāpā. So ngā mihi kia koe, Vitale. Tell me about the title, A Canoe Before the Wind.
That title is a Sāmoan proverb. “O le va’a e tu le matagi.” It means, something that moves quickly. I see it as being like race day in the America’s Cup, where there’s no wind. And the race day is cancelled. And the canoe sits but then it self-propels. It moves forward and self-navigates. It charts its own course. And the currents that push it off course are things such as what others think you should do. What your mum and dad think you should do. What the organisation you work for thinks you should do, because, you know, “Sāmoans are good at that stuff”.
And those are the currents that push against your canoe. But you should always stay true to what you want to do. And the wind behind your canoe, I see that as belief. That’s what pushes the canoe before the wind. O le va’a e tu le matagi.
Sometimes people, especially those in demanding, high-stress roles, need to draw strength from other things outside their work. I wonder what that might be for you. And given the reality that confronted you a few years ago, what do you treasure outside of your mahi?
Yeah, I had to think deeply about that, Dale. I got so wound up in the mahi — it just totally consumed me, from the SAS to the police. And then I got sick. And, in just over a year, I’d gone from being promoted to area commander to sitting at home. Disabled and without a job. Which is trauma enough after so many years in a position, but on top of that, I was seriously ill, and I thought I could die.
And what it caused me to do was find out why I wanted to live. What happiness there was for me. And that was my family. For so long, I had basically neglected them. I was never there. I was on shift work. I was deployed.
So now I can spend time with them. I only work part-time. I can treasure my two beautiful moko. And just being around and watching my children and moko succeed in their lives, that’s what brings me happiness now. And true happiness.
If I hadn’t got sick, I never would have found that happiness.
Well, all the best with life going forward, Vitale. This has been a lovely and rich kōrero. I thank you for sharing it with us. Much love to you and your whānau, brother.
And you, too. Thank you, Dale.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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 not-for-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 making a one-off donation or contributing $5 or $10 a month.