New Zealand police sergeant shares insights on colonialism and restorative justice

Simon Kairau speaks to Saskatchewan Polytechnic students in Prince Albert Thursday. (Peter Lozinski/Daily Herald)

A New Zealand police sergeant who has spent much of the past ten years working with the country’s Indigenous population visited Prince Albert as part of a Saskatchewan tour Thursday to share knowledge with local institutions.

Simon Kairau is part of New Zealand’s cultural resource unit, called Iwi liaison officers, they work with Indigenous policing and Indigenous justice reform. He called his Saskatchewan trip an “information-sharing venture.”

Kairau has met with tribal councils, elders and police services from across Saskatchewan.

Thursday, he presented at Saskatchewan Polytechnic, sharing his perspectives on colonization, reconciliation and justice system reform.

“Almost every single Indigenous community has been affected by colonization and overrepresentation (in the justice system),” he said.

“If students are going to be heading into police services, or community safety officers or corrections, a huge part of their work will be on Indigenous strategies.”

Kairau said the “echoes of colonization” are always going to be present.

While the specific experiences differ between Saskatchewan and New Zealand, Kairau said there are some similarities, especially in terms of colonization, representation in prisons and what institutions are doing today to be more culturally responsive.

“In New Zealand, some of our current systems are working well, but with some, there is more work to be done,” he said.

According to Kairau, New Zealand is striving to be ranked the safest country. The last number of years, it has been ranked second, behind only Iceland. The biggest factor holding the nation back, he said, has been the high proportion of Indigenous people in prison. Kairau said that about 50 per cent of incarcerated New Zealanders are Indigenous, despite Indigenous people making up only about 15 per cent of the overall population.

“If we look at the incarceration rates of New Zealand and Canada, we know that if we can make a change in those spaces, we’re going to make a change.”

He also compared some elements of the New Zealand Indigenous experience to that of Indigenous people in Canada.

A traditional cultural practice of some Maori people, he said, is tattooing your family story on your body, including your face. Tattooing your face, at one point, was banned.

“You weren’t allowed to express your culture, just like some of the stories I’ve heard here,” he said.

He traces some of it back to the days of Christopher Columbus, who told of a mythical city filled with gold, blocked by Native “savages.”

From there, with all of the explorers … Indigenous people were savages”

Kairau linked that with “systemic colonization around what is a native and what is savage or not. We know it’s a complete lie,” he said.

While all of that may have happened in the past, past attitudes and treatment still affect Indigenous people today, he said.

Inmates in New Zealand have identified things such as structural racism, intergenerational trauma and colonization as factors behind their criminal activity.

He explained that in New Zealand, the Maori people shifted from living in a rural area to an urban one by 50 per cent in just 30 years. That brought in introductions to drugs and alcohol, as well as western European concepts like paying bills or owing rent.

“It moved really quickly in such a short timeframe, he said.

“The quick urbanization of a culture is going to set it up to fail.”

Part of moving forward involves recognizing that.

“When I speak with our industry partners in New Zealand, it’s common now that people are knowing their past,” he said.

“We know that it isn’t us, it isn’t me or you personally, but we all now that we’ve got ownership in some sense of what our ancestors have done, whether it’s good or bad. The result is our industries are acknowledging whatever happened in the past and how everyone moves forward. It’s about moving forward while acknowledging that some decisions and some systemic placements of where individuals are today have seen some contribution from what’s happened in our past.”

The other thing Kairau said more are acknowledging is that the justice system is almost exclusively based on a non-Indigenous process.

‘We’re not thinking about what that looks like,” he said.

“If nothing is changing within our criminal justice system over a 50-year span with our incarceration rates with Indigenous people, it tells us our main systems …. May not be built for Indigenous peoples.”

Kairau emphasized that there is still a time and place for Indigenous incarceration, but added that in some situations, there might be another way.

Exploring restorative justice

For the last couple of years, Kairau has been working with Iwi community panels, which work with low-level offenders in the pre-court space to prevent the files from ever reaching a courtroom in the first place.

“Maori are three times more likely to reenter the criminal justice system once they’ve been through the justice system for the first time,” he said.

While restorative justice practices are also present in Canada, the difference, Kairau said, is that the New Zealand process takes place before charges are even formally sworn in court.

“We’ve taken the restorative justice process and put it before the court process,” he said.

“If everything goes well with the panel hearing and outcomes and reparations, or whatever the penalties may be, the file is closed before it even reaches court.”

The c=panels are made up of elders and other community members trained in law and penalties. A penalty or a reparation of some sort is still applied through the process, but it keeps people out of court. Instead, the committees, which are open to both Indigenous and non-Indigenous New Zealanders, are held in traditional Maori spaces.

“What’s happened in New Zealand is there is some numbness with some of the Indigenous,” he said.

“If they have to go to court, there ‘s a mental numbness to it, there’s no accountability. It’s ‘yeah, I’m off to court, I’ll get whatever I deserve, so be it, it doesn’t matter.’”

The Maori space is a completely different forum, Kairau said.

“The shame of some of our offenders having to (appear before) the elders is more than enough of a penalty in some cases, depending on the offence.”

The panel deals with low-level offences, deemed anything that would result in a jail sentence of six months or less. Sanctions are rolled out by panel members, and if they are breached or offenders don’t follow the conditions of their agreements, the files can be referred to the standard court system.

“At any stage, we can forward it for prosecution if need be,” Kairau said.

So far, the program appears to be working. It’s resulted in a 19.4 per cent reduction in recidivism in the Maori population. That’s up from an 11.9 per cent reduction just two years ago.

“That’s not to say it’s the saviour, be all end all of what we’re doing, but we can definitely say it’s a huge contributing factor.”

Other programs are helping too, such as a partnership with Maori wardens, who act as special constables or peacekeepers and help to build relationships within some communities where police might not be welcome. The police support them with technology, systems and training, and the wardens help to build relationships and keep peace in their communities.

Kairau also talked about a mobile app officers have access to that helps them to connect victims and some offenders with appropriate social services during their first interaction.

Kairau emphasized that the initiatives the national police force is undertaking don’t take away from their duty to keep the peace and uphold the law. He also acknowledges that it’s also still a reactive response and not a proactive one.

But while Kairau hopes Saskatchewan can take away some of the lessons he’s learned through the pre-court restorative justice project, he’s also taking home lessons of his own.

The police, he said, are looking for ways to recruit and train more Indigenous officers in New Zealand so that the force better reflects the makeup of the community.

Pre-police education, such as what is offered at Saskatchewan Polytechnic, is a good start, he said.

“What’s offered here … that’s really huge,” he said.

“It’s one of the major things I will be taking back and following up on.”