Waitangi Day – New Zealand’s national day, commemorated with a public holiday on February 6 each year – is different from the national days of many other countries. It doesn’t celebrate a declaration or statute of independence at the end of a conflict or revolution or following a decolonization process, and it doesn’t celebrate a first landing or discovery, and there are no fireworks or parades. Instead, the day commemorates the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi between the British Crown and Māori chiefs on that day in 1840. The Treaty was the basis for the establishment of the colonial government in New Zealand and guaranteed that Māori rights in relation to their lands and other resources and treasures would be protected.
The history of both the Treaty and of the national day since 1840 has moved from a lack of recognition, acknowledgment, or even knowledge, to protest, debate, and controversy, and increasingly to celebration. With these shifts over time has also come greater awareness and understanding of the issues. Those issues relate to past land alienation, assimilationist policies and loss of culture and autonomy, and the current role of the Treaty as the country’s founding document (particularly in the context of what this means for Māori rights, Māori economic and social development, and the relationships between different groups of people in what is now very much a multicultural society).
I clearly won’t be able to cover the breadth and depth of the issues and discussions relating to the Treaty in this post. To some extent, however, the history of Waitangi Day itself does offer some insights into the subject.
The signing of the Treaty on February 6 wasn’t officially commemorated until 1934, and it has only been a public holiday since 1974. The event at Waitangi in 1934 came about because the then Governor-General gifted the Treaty House and grounds to the nation. The Governor-General’s prayer on that day expressed the desire that “the sacred compact made in these waters may be faithfully and honourably kept for all time to come” and that the two races (Māori and Pākehā) might unite as one nation. Although celebrations exhibiting national pride and unity occurred in the following years, particularly on the centennial in 1940, Māori began to seek to use the day to highlight injustices and challenge the nation’s record on race relations.
In the 1950s and 60s, there was movement towards making the day a public holiday. The Waitangi Day Act 1960 declared that February 6 would be known as Waitangi Day, but did not provide for a national public holiday. Then an amendment in 1963 made Waitangi Day a public holiday in Northland only (the province in which Waitangi is situated). Finally, in 1973 the government announced that the following year “New Zealand Day” would be celebrated as a national holiday on February 6. The idea was that the day would be neither symbolic nor religious, but would be an important part of efforts to achieve a “full sense of nationhood.” The name of the day was changed back to Waitangi Day by legislation enacted in 1976, with the government saying that this was due to representations that this would better recognize the significance of the Treaty.
The 1980s saw increasing protest and tensions on Waitangi Day – there were calls for the promises in the Treaty to be honored, large marches at Waitangi, and threats to boycott the celebrations. By the 1990s, there had been a range of legislative changes, including extending the ability for the Waitangi Tribunal to hear historic claims about breaches of the Treaty. During the 1990s, there was increased focus on self-determination or self-regulation from Māori protesters, and the government worked on developing further policies for settling grievances. The protests continued into the 2000s, however, with new debates about rights and legislation, particularly relating to the foreshore and seabed, but the day has become much more peaceful in recent years. The website of the Waitangi National Trust, which organizes some of the events at Waitangi, describes a family festival of sport and culture. There are also a number of events around the country (and around the world). It is still a day involving discussion and protest, as well as apathy on the part of many, but it is increasingly one of celebration and partnership.
Apart from Waitangi Day protests and celebrations, Treaty issues are often debated in Parliament and reflected in different laws. However, as is often the case with legal research (and particularly foreign legal research), the legal status of the Treaty and the range of relevant laws can’t be understood without looking further into their historical, political, social, and cultural context. The New Zealand History Online website (an initiative of the Ministry of Culture and Heritage) provides a good amount of information on Waitangi Day and the Treaty, and is definitely well worth a visit if you ever want to get a feel for what makes the country tick. Other great websites for learning more about New Zealand are the Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand, which includes the Dictionary of New Zealand Biographies, and the National Library of New Zealand’s digital collections.