Wepiha Te Kanawa is one of those folk with the talent to excel in any number of roles. Like on stage in kapa haka. Or in a barbershop quartet. Or on TV as a junior Scotty Morrison or Julian Wilcox. Or, as a fancy cakemaker. Or, as he is these days, a South Auckland cop. So he’s been doing the lot. But, as he tells Dale, he has more ambitions to pursue.
Kia ora, Wepiha. You’re the first guest I’ve had with such an unusual combination of careers. But, please, let’s first hear where your story started.
Tēnā koe, Dale. Well, my name’s Wepiha Uenuku Toa Te Kanawa. My father’s name is Lincoln. He’s Ngāti Maniapoto, Te Kuiti, the heart of the King Country. My mother is Traci from Tauranga Moana. Mauao te maunga. Tauranga te moana. Ngāti Ranginui, Ngāi Te Rangi, Ngāti Pūkenga ngā iwi.
Wepiha is actually my mum’s maiden name. It was translated into Webster back in the day. I understand that when she was at school, Pākehā teachers and students were having trouble trying to pronounce Wepiha. So they translated that into Webster. And I’m one of the first to reclaim that back into a Māori name. So, I take my mum’s surname as my first name.
Te Kanawa comes from my dad. Kiri Te Kanawa is our whanaunga. One of our great singers. Unfortunately, I didn’t inherit that skill. So I’m not a great opera singer, but I do like to sing. And I’m no stranger to the kapa haka stage.
My middle name, Uenuku Toa, is a translation of Rainbow Warrior. And I bear that name because I was born on the 10th of July, which is the anniversary of the bombing of the Rainbow Warrior. My koro translated it into Māori.
My parents were huge activists, which explains why I was given that name. They’re pro-Maori, tino rangatiratanga hard. We grew up going to every protest that we could. So, when my birthday rolls around, I think about those kaupapa that relate to the whenua and are dear to us as Māori.
I had a bit to do with the Te Kanawa clan as a novice broadcaster at Waitomo Radio many years ago. I have great respect for your whānau and the work they’ve done in and around Maniapoto. And they were a big part of my life.
In fact, just last night I was reminded of Dame Rangimarie. I was talking with Brian Joyce, the kaumātua of Papakura Marae, and I asked him: “What’s the secret of your longevity, mātua?” He said: “Well, one day Dame Rangimarie visited, and I asked her that same question: ‘What’s the secret to your longevity?’ And she said: ‘I mind my own business.’”
But that’s not the rule here in this interviewing business. So I wonder if you’d tell us something about your upbringing and, in particular, the place of te reo Māori in your early life.
In my upbringing, it was huge. My parents were among the brave pioneers who decided to put their tamariki into kōhanga reo, kura kaupapa, whare wānanga. Back in those days I’m sure it would’ve been very difficult. They would’ve got weird looks and pushy questions: “Why would you send your kids to a Māori school? A kura kaupapa school? There’s no future there. They need to learn how to read and write English.”
But my parents were staunch. They were brave and they had the foresight to see how important te reo would be in our later years — which turned out to be very true. So, I’m from a kōhanga reo, kura kaupapa, and whare kura as well. All in Tauranga Moana.
Then I ventured over to Te Arawa, to Rotorua, and went to Te Kura o Te Koutu where I was under Uenuku Fairhall. That’s the school where they teach Māori in Spanish. After a couple of years, I decided to head back home and round off my education with a little bit of Pākehā, and went to Tauranga Boys.
No doubt there were other kaiako who played prominent roles in your education.
Well, one big influence came when I was at Otepou kura. Otepou was Awanui Black who, sadly, has since passed away. He was a person that I looked up to — not only me but my older brothers and sisters, too. He was the one that planted the seed of te reo in me.
He had this crazy long mullet, but he was just a cool, unapologetic Māori —something I had never seen before. It was quite a Pākehā world back then, but to see this guy who knew his whakapapa, mai te rangi ki te whenua. He could rattle off the whakapapa from this waka and that waka.
And he wrote many songs in Tauranga Moana that tell the old stories. And now that I’m older, when I look back at those songs I can see that he was teaching us the whole genealogy from the Mataatua waka, from the beginning. I had no idea when I was singing this as a kid. He taught me subliminally. He taught me all of the history of this area, and I had no idea.
It must’ve been uncomfortable for you when there were claims made about Awanui by his ex-wife. The police weren’t able to find any evidence to substantiate them but they did besmirch his name.
Yeah. Definitely. It came as a huge shock. It was very hard for me to hear those, as you say, unsubstantiated claims. Particularly because he’s not here to tell his side of the story. For me, I will always remember him as that person I knew in my younger days, who taught me so much.
Let’s look now at your venture into journalism. Not many Māori are drawn into that world. What encouraged you to take that step?
I kind of just fell into it. I remember in school watching Te Karere, watching Scotty Morrison and trying to imitate him with my friends in class. And I’d sign off the programme with my name rather than his. We’d joke about it. Then, all of a sudden, I found myself in Auckland, working in Māori Television.
That came about after I went to Waikato University and did a double major in Māori and Spanish. I wanted to become a Māori and Spanish teacher. So, I did that for my first year. After that, I heard about South Seas Film and Television. There was a one-year diploma in film and television on the North Shore. I thought to myself: “I’ll go up to Auckland, see what that’s about, and then come back and finish my real education.”
But, towards the end of that year at South Seas, Māori Television invited me to do a week-long internship at the station in Newmarket and then offered me a job. And there I was for the next five or six years.
Now, this Spanish thing. I didn’t realise you’d taken it at the tertiary level as well. It’s neat that you can speak Spanish as well as your own reo.
The great thing about Spanish is that it’s very similar to Māori. I like to say that Spanish is a bit like reading English in Māori. So, for the word “television”, you say “tere-whi-she-on.” I must say though that I’m very rusty now. But, on my travels overseas, I’m always bound to meet someone from South America. When I was in Spain, I was able to use it to get around. Just conversational. Nothing fluent or anything like that. But it’s a good conversation starter.
What are your feelings about journalism when you look back on those years?
I started on Te Kaea, the daily news. Then I moved over to Native Affairs, which did more investigative journalism. And the great thing about those programmes was that we were there to tell Māori stories through a Māori lens and give Māori a voice. So, there was a degree of enjoyment in all the stories, because we were able to tell them from a Māori point of view.
Māori Television gives us a different voice from the mainstream media, which often gives just one unbalanced side of the story. But any story that I did back home in Tauranga Moana was always fulfilling. And it was the same feeling if I went back to Maniapoto to do a story. I’d feel I was giving back to my iwi.
It’s clear that journalism is an important profession, whether it’s television, radio, print, or digital. But we seem to have a dearth of young Māori opting for it as a career. Why do you think so few Māori are attracted to it as their mahi?
I think it’s just a sign of the times. Social media technology is a huge part of our world right now and that’s our generation. We were born into that. That’s how we roll. We rangatahi use the social media on a daily basis. In a sense we’re being journalists without us even knowing it. I think that’s a reason more rangatahi Māori aren’t being drawn into formal media training and jobs.
You’re in the police now at a time when there’s a more comfortable perception that the cops are community people. It used to be that they were seen as the ones who lock up our Māori people. And it was us and them. The reality is we’re all, or most of us, working together in communities to make them better places to raise our kids and moko. But what was it that encouraged you to become a police officer?
To be honest, one day I literally woke up, opened my eyes and thought: “I want to be a police officer.” I applied that very day. Six months later, I was at police college. It may sound cheesy, but joining the police felt like a calling.
Has it been what you hoped it would be?
Much more. Some of the public have a perception that the police drive around, bust criminals, give out speeding tickets. But, obviously, there’s a lot more to it than that.
You’re exposed to some of the more unsavoury aspects of our community that most of us are protected from. Given what you see in a day — whether it might be a suicide, kids injured in car accidents, domestic violence — how do you keep yourself on level ground when you’re exposed to this, the darker side of New Zealand life?
You’re right. We deal with some things that you’d never wish to experience. But that’s the job we signed up for. The important thing for me, though, is having strong support networks. My wife at home, my whānau in Tauranga, my friends outside of the police, a good work-life balance. Being healthy, being fit, all of these — te wharetapawha, te hinengaro, te tinana, te wairua — all of these connect. So that’s how I’m able to deal with the difficult incidents.
How much use do you make of your reo Māori on the job?
Every day. Every day within the police, I’ll say “Mōrena. Kia ora” to everyone I see. I work in Manurewa. It’s a huge population of Māori. I reckon 95 percent that I interact with are Māori. Just a quick “kia ora” can break down barriers straight away.
If I get a feeling that they’re able to speak Māori, I’ll switch straight away. See them jump back a little bit: “Eh? How can you speak Māori?” It’s really helpful. Pronouncing the correct names of places is always a goodie as well. Like Manurewa and Mangere as opposed to “man-you-ree-wah” and “man-geree.” That’s one way I contribute. Just with my Māori.
It must be tough, though, at times. Having to chase, follow up, or sometimes arrest our own and recognising there are probably extenuating circumstances.
We deal with this challenge every day. I understand the complexities our whānau are faced with, and how they get into these situations. My role, as a Māori police officer, is to find alternative pathways for them. It’s to say: “Hold on. What I can see here is that you’ve gone down this path, but it’s not working. It’s creating more issues for you. What’s an alternative? Can we get you to an iwi justice panel? Can we find a way for you to get your driver’s licence so you don’t have to get fines?”
I’m a big believer in finding solutions for people. That’s how I deal with it. I’m not sure about other police officers, but that’s my view.
On a lighter note, I was chuffed to see a video you put together with some police colleagues a year or so back, that went viral, didn’t it? Can you tell us what about that barbershop or close harmony style of singing?
I grew up on the kapa haka stage, and while I was at police college, I met up with a few Pacific boys, and we’d have a jam, sing this song, sing that song. Next minute, some of the sergeants heard about it and asked us to do a performance. So we sang for everyone and they chucked us on video. It was a couple of brown brothers just having a jam, doing what we love. And yeah, it went crazy online. It was weird.
So, you’re working in Manurewa, and presumably you’ve got plans to be in the police for some time ahead. Where do you want to take this career?
I’d love to be a detective. That’s one of my goals. Of course, I’d love to explore other Māori spaces within the police, maybe at management level, to help create a strategy to reduce Māori offending — or to work with iwi a lot better. But, right now, just happy being a constable. And then, who knows?
Among the encouraging signs are that we’re seeing more Māori and Pasifika join the police, and there are more Māori-focused strategies like Turning the Tide. Are these initiatives having much impact?
It’s huge. There’s a domino effect from these strategies. And, as the numbers are reduced, it works out for everyone. Not only are we seeing less Māori in prison or going through the justice system, it means we can reallocate resources elsewhere. Which is great. I love the police focus on alternative pathways for Māori. That was a big winner for me, when I heard that was one of their top strategies. I was blown away. Very happy.
Finally, let’s turn to your personal life. I understand you wāhine Johanna is hapū.
Yes. We have one on the way. We’re due this year in November.
Congratulations. You’ll be very excited about that. This can be a motivation for us to effect change in our communities, because we want to leave this place better for those who follow in our footsteps. What sort of New Zealand would you like your bubba to grow up in?
I’d love for my pēpi to grow up in an Aotearoa where she is valued, she knows her identity, the colour of her skin doesn’t dictate her role in society and that she is happy, healthy and able to fulfil her dreams.
That’s a lovely answer. And finally what are some things that you like to do that nobody really knows about? Something unusual.
Not many people know this, but I used to make cakes. Like, extravagant cakes. I used to own a cake business called The Keke King. We sold cakes, cupcakes, and all sorts of different desserts. I still love cooking pastries, anything. My wife loves it. She’s happy for me to cook.
And is there a cake that you’re especially proud of?
The first cake I ever made was my sister’s 21st birthday cake. That’s where it all started. Victorian vanilla sponge with an Oreo buttercream, a white chocolate Swiss-meringue buttercream coating with a caramel drizzle, and caramel shards on the top. Just something small.
That sounds awesome. And it’s a lovely image to end with. Thank you, Wepiha, for your kōrero.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
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