Cross Country Checkup

'New Zealand is not perfect': Maori playwright says mosque attacks weren't unprecedented

David Geary, a Capilano University instructor, says that many people want to believe that New Zealand is a peaceful "sanctuary." But given its history of conflict with the country's Indigenous peoples — and growing anti-Muslim rhetoric — that's not the case.

'If you're Maori, and you know your history, you will go, 'Hold on,'' says David Geary

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern hugs a mosque-goer at the Kilbirnie Mosque on March 17, 2019 in Wellington, New Zealand. Following the attacks on two mosques in Christchurch, Ardern called the violence unprecendented. (Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

In the wake of shootings at two Christchurch mosques that have killed at least 50 people and injured 40 others, Maori professor and playwright David Geary says New Zealand isn't the "sanctuary" some believe it to be.

"I often have people come up to me and go, 'New Zealand's amazing. Look at all the great things you're doing, and your amazing prime minister and your race relations,'" Geary told Cross Country Checkup  host Duncan McCue.

"I have to stop them and say, 'Hold up. Listen, New Zealand is not perfect.'"

Brenton Tarrant, the 28-year-old man charged with murder in the killings, wrote about his ties to white supremacy in a manifesto posted online under his name.

The attacks have reignited a conversation around the rise in racism and anti-immigrant sentiment in that country.

Muslim women comfort each other after visiting Al Noor Mosque on March 18, 2019 in Christchurch, N.Z. The Islamic Women's Council of New Zealand says they told lawmakers about growing discrimination against the community five years ago. (Carl Court/Getty Images)

Despite its reputation as a relatively peaceful nation, Geary, an instructor at Capilano University in North Vancouver, says racism has long been prevalent in New Zealand — felt particularly among the Maori population of indigenous peoples.

"The Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern … she said this was unprecedented to have this kind of massacre," Geary said, "But if you're Maori, and you know your history, you will go, 'Hold on.'"

Conflicts between the Maori peoples and colonial groups are longstanding. Geary pointed to conflicts in 1864 when Maori peoples were killed by colonial troops when they set fire to a church.

Groups warned of growing racism

When it comes to Muslims living in New Zealand, Geary says racist rhetoric is common, particularly among politicians.

"We have people in New Zealand who call Muslim women — who are politicians — wearing the burqa, they'll call them letterboxes," he said.

"We have to kind of confront those kind of people and say … you think that's a joke but that is dehumanizing and it creates a culture where other people will follow suit."

What is the amazing culture you bring to New Zealand ... and how can that enrich us?'- David Geary, Maori playwright

Geary also says Muslim advocacy groups have told government that discrimination against that community is a growing issue in New Zealand.

He pointed to a report by the Islamic Women's Council of New Zealand that provided a report to the government five years ago highlighting growing discrimination against Muslims.

Writing for Radio New Zealand, the group's spokesperson Anjum Rahman says despite meetings over the past few years, little help has come from government sources.

"I want the politicians from both parties that we personally spoke to, to sit in front of us and tell us what they did as a result of our meetings with them," she wrote.

'A two-way street'

Geary, who has a personal connection to one of the critically injured victims, acknowledges that it's difficult to change sentiment.

However, he would like to see education curricula put a greater emphasis on anti-discrimination measures.

"What we need to do is look at our education systems ... and make sure our children are taught tolerance and love," he said.

"Then you have a chance for another generation."

Geary wants New Zealanders to ask what other cultures can bring to their country. (Vincent Thian/Associated Press)

Until then, Geary says that New Zealanders should reconsider how they view immigration and cultures outside their own — and ask questions.

"Go, 'come to our country and we can help you with English and getting adapting to our culture, but what is the amazing culture you bring to New Zealand ... and how can that enrich us?'"

"It's a two-way street."

Written by Jason Vermes with files from Mary Newman.