I heard the sad news last night that Kathy Ertel passed away a couple of days ago. Most Māori lawyers, or lawyers who have ever practised in Treaty jurisprudence, knew, or knew of, Kathy, and of her great commitment to her many Māori clients. I never knew her well enough to presume to attempt any kind of obituary here; but I know that she played an important part in recent Māori legal history, and that she was respected, and beloved of those close to her. Ka nui taku mihi aroha ki tōna whānau. Moe mai, e te wahine toa, hoki atu koe ki ōu tūpuna, okioki ai.
One of her early achievements was to act as junior counsel on the landmark NZ Māori Council ‘Lands’ case, sometimes known as the ‘SOE’ case. Justice Glazebrook has described the import of the Court of Appeal’s decision in the following way:
The Court of Appeal’s decision in the Maori Council case has been viewed by New Zealand historians as one of the crucial measures that helped facilitate Maori development and identity through propelling extensive social and political change in New Zealand. It has been argued that the decision, which has been seen as giving the Treaty of Waitangi an explicit place in New Zealand jurisprudence for the first time, was one of the catalysts for the creation of a general acceptance that the state has a responsibility actively to fund the promotion of Maori language and culture and language.
Kathy’s passing and remembering her achievements also sent my mind back to another important figure with whom she worked on the Lands case, and at Luckie Hain; the late Martin Dawson, who was also my old boss from my days in the Māori Legal team at Russell McVeagh. He passed away in 2003, a time etched in my mind, coming so close to the birth of my first child; whom Martin met in the last weeks of his own life, and the early weeks of my son’s.
An extraordinary person of chivalry and passion, with a wonderful family, Martin, perhaps more than any other person in my life, was the first to teach me something of what ‘rangatiratanga’ might look like. He had had a really firm vision of New Zealand as a Māori country, over which Māori exercised an enduring rangatiratanga, regardless of the existence of Crown sovereignty. I think, in my mind, I had always thought of this country as ‘New Zealand’ with ‘a few Māori bits here and there’. That was BM: Before Martin. Because of my all too brief time with Martin, the seeds were sown for me to eventually understand that different sovereignties can continue to exist in one place at the same time.
I feel today a moment of gratefulness for Pākehā lawyers who, for whatever reason, have caught hold of a genuine vision of justice for Māori and a better future for Māori in this land. In my time in law (and I feel still such a baby in law, after all) I have met a few such practitioners. The best of them never presume to speak for Māori unless asked; they listen; they learn. They know what they don’t know. They don’t seek to hold on to the reins; they seek, mentor and inspire young Māori to take up those reins instead.
He mihi nui ki a rātou katoa.