David Fisher

David Fisher is a senior reporter for the NZ Herald.

My husband deserved respect - George Taiaroa's widow

Casual racism and insensitivity in the handling of George Taiaroa's murder made the family's grief even worse, says his widow

George Taiaroa was a hard worker who loved his family, his fishing, and his life, says his widow. Photo / Alan Gibson
George Taiaroa was a hard worker who loved his family, his fishing, and his life, says his widow. Photo / Alan Gibson

The message remains on the phone of Dr Helen Taiaroa. The police officer who calls hasn't practised saying her name beforehand and stumbles in pronouncing "Taiaroa".

It is a name with resonance in Maoridom and the officer's fumbling shows how far he is from the world he is about to shatter.

After almost 43 years married to George Taiaroa, Dr Taiaroa knew her husband was dead even before returning the call to the policeman.

She shied away from the worst immediately and instinctively. "I didn't want to focus on my children being dead, so I knew it was my husband. No parent wants to know their children have died. I didn't want to know if it was the kids. That's real denial, at its rawest. I knew it was George."

If she'd watched the news, three hours after he was killed and 45 minutes before police rang, she would have known.

His truck was on the television, parked up next to the body of a man killed doing his job with the stop-go sign that kept traffic flowing.

"How many hours?" she asks. She knows the answer. It was almost four hours before that phone call was made. "It leaves a lot to be desired."

Dr Taiaroa hadn't seen the television news. She is a busy academic at a busy wananga - she was rushing and was home late.

So she rang the officer back, deciding already she had lost the man she loved because it was a less horrifying alternative. Then she rang their children. "They rang their father eight times. They wanted him to pick the phone up."

His chair remains at the sun-kissed table in the kitchen of the Hamilton home the couple moved to after the four children had grown up and left. There is a "wailing wall", as she calls it with a wry smile, carrying photographs of Mr Taiaroa, his forebears and the family left behind. Tears still come, almost six months later.

The pain would be less, it seems, if those who didn't know him judged him by the family he has created or the life he lived.

Instead, Dr Taiaroa feels judgment is made more on the job he did or the blood in his veins.

There's been a lot of that, she says. Inadvertent, ongoing and thoughtless racism and stereotypes which have trampled Mr Taiaroa's mana.

She says that is New Zealand. "Unfortunately, we are a racist country."


So let me tell you about my murdered husband, George, says Dr Taiaroa.

He was born on June 11, 1945, in Bluff, and had two marae. At Bluff there is Te Rau Aroha, unusual in featuring female ancestors in the whare and fitting, in a way, given Mr Taiaroa was a male child in a line which rarely produced male children.

Fitting, also, for the determined and strong woman he married. Dr Taiaroa laughs at how they would tease her for her strong backbone and clear vision. "My kids would say, 'Dad, you had the opportunity to get away from her. We had no say."'

Mr Taiaroa's mother, Moana Whaitiri, was local to Bluff while his father, Turumaka Taiaroa, harked back to Otakou Marae on Otago Peninsula.

It holds a significant place in Ngai Tahu life, as Mr Taiaroa's whakapapa does. Otakou Marae was one of the places where the Treaty of Waitangi was signed in 1840. The Treaty carries the name of Mr Taiaroa's great-great-grandfather Te Matenga Taiaroa and his great-grandfather Hori Kerei Taiaroa, elected in 1871 to Parliament, where he campaigned in keeping with an edict from his father - make the state keep its promises.

This is Mr Taiaroa's whakapapa.

His mother was young and by the time Mr Taiaroa left home at 15, she had married three times. Mr Taiaroa jobbed his way northwards.

"He knew how to work physically hard," says Dr Taiaroa. An only child, Mr Taiaroa created family wherever he went with his effusive and generous personality .

"He was such a social person," she says. "He had this aura around him, where people just gravitated to him."

He met the future Dr Taiaroa about 1968. She was a nurse, he worked at the Wattie's plant. There was quite a bit of socialising, she recalls.

"Oh, I didn't like him," she says, smiling at the memory of it. It was his flatmate she had her eye on. Honestly, she says, given the pie cart he took her to, it was a wonder it went further.

Which it did, and they married in June 1970. From there they built a life.


"We are like chalk and cheese. Total opposites," says Dr Taiaroa. "I question. He doesn't. I invite people into my space, he lets everybody in."

Those days in the 1970s and 1980s seem only just out of reach. He played rugby for Tamatea Rugby Club and she played netball for the Rebels. He went from Wattie's to the freezing works to the wharf, while she nursed at Hastings Hospital.

They bought a section at Te Awanga, a coastal hamlet near Cape Kidnappers, built the family home there and raised their children at the coast where Mr Taiaroa practised his other great love.

"He was a great fisherman," she says, and a diver. "The sea was his life." Later, showing photographs of his prized possessions, she jokingly refers to Mr Taiaroa's fibreglass fishing boat as "his wife". Selling the truck that towed it wasn't so hard - that went to family. But it hurt so much to sell the boat, and she is bracing herself for the fishing gear. That goes next. "Bit by bit, 43 years gets stripped away," she says.

There were four children, in all. The more practical, nappy-changing aspects of fatherhood were a struggle but it was never hard to love. Rochai came about the time of the house; Melanie, Chanel and Chad followed. As Mr Taiaroa embraced fatherhood, it highlighted the difference between the life he had come from and that to which he had come. "Being an only child, he wanted 20 children."

Mr Taiaroa went to work at Napier wharf - a job arranged by Dr Taiaroa's father, who also taught his son-on-law how to lay a hangi.

It was one of many ways of being drawn back to tikanga Maori. "It's not how he was brought up - there was four generations of no reo," Dr Taiaroa says. She says she learned young, growing up on marae. "George strived for it and got it when he married into it."

He was a Maori man, disengaged from a rich history and rediscovering tikanga Maori. "He was so proud his mokopuna were at a kohanga reo," says Dr Taiaroa. The disengagement is such a New Zealand story. So, too, is how it was created by colonisation, and as Maori grew reluctant to surrender land, it happened at gunpoint.

If that sounds a link too remote to draw, Mr Taiaroa lost everything at gunpoint on March 19. Dr Taiaroa says police suspect a racial motive in the killing. And if that's the case, what followed rankles all the more.


Of course it hurt, knowing he was killed. But the hurt was worse for the casual damage that followed.

It began with the police and the bungled phone call. Dr Taiaroa speaks highly of the detectives investigating the murder, singling out Detective Inspector Tim Anderson and iwi liaison officer Sergeant Brian Nicholas for regard.

There are others of whom she speaks less highly. The officer who bumbled through the answerphone message - it was "43 years of your life destroyed in a phone call at quarter to seven at night".

Then, for a woman so deeply grounded in her culture, the lack of recognition for something so important to her and her family was dismaying. The iwi liaison officer did a fine job, she says, but should have been accorded mana in his dealings with family that sat him alongside the detectives leading the investigation.

Then there was the insistence the family be interviewed separately at the police station. Dr Taiaroa dug her heels in. Her children had never been near a police station and it wasn't about to start. "You had to challenge the status quo of the police as an organisation. The majority go by the manual and there is a stereotyping in there of Maori."

The media seemed cruel. There was unfounded speculation at press conferences of links to drugs and gangs. Reporting carried inferences, she says, which would not have been drawn were the victim not Maori.

"They have to question their behaviour. I don't think they can see that a person who is Maori and who is a labourer can be as nice as people describe him. What I'm saying is don't be judgmental of people. Remember - they are someone's loved one."

There was HEB Construction (Mr Taiaroa's employer), which engaged the family apparently without taking advice about tikanga Maori. "You'd think they would know you," she says, after a 10-year working relationship. "They did not bother."

It brought back her perceptions of the regard held for its road crew staff, who had different accommodation from engineering staff. "George was a second-class citizen." She asked HEB if it would look at how to better protect staff. For example, moving those who had been involved in altercations, as was the case with Mr Taiaroa. Nothing was being done, she says.

The life insurance company refused to pay out until it was assured she had not murdered her own husband. Detective Inspector Anderson confirms this.

And the Government was little better. The murder effectively resulted in a pay cut. The Accident Compensation Corporation has picked up Mr Taiaroa's salary and is paying 60 per cent of his wage. As an academic, Dr Taiaroa earned much more, yet now has her wages taxed at a secondary and higher rate. Being a widow, aside from the tragedy, means she gets to pay more tax. ACC has confirmed the situation but can't explain it.

As the stupidity mounted, Dr Taiaroa questioned whether it would have been different were her husband other than Maori and working in a blue-collar job. In some cases, it must have been institutional clumsiness. In others, she's not so sure.


"He had a brilliant mathematical mind," Dr Taiaroa says. It was a different world when he left school. There was plenty of work. As his children grew, he showed them how he worked so they knew different paths lay before them.

"We ensured they had choices. We exposed them to the hardships of life. We took them out picking fruit to show them what happens if you don't go to school." Rochai went shearing with her dad and later worked in the freezing works.

Mr Taiaroa had his own bits of paper: crane operation and later a hauora certificate. But his appreciation for the possibilities came when his children began to go to university.

Chanel wound up with a fine arts degree, Rochai is a teacher and is studying towards a master's degree at Auckland University. Chad lays fibre-optic cables while Melanie has a master's degree in law and is a policy analyst at Te Wananga o Aotearoa.

"He was so proud of his children. He ensured they got a decent education so they can better themselves. He knew what it was like to work physically hard and there is a better way in life to do things."

He was proud of his wife, too. Dr Taiaroa's path to higher education began in 1995. After he was killed, she found among his belongings an article done by Mana Magazine when she got her doctorate. "He kept all the stuff from my PhD," she says. It turned out he'd left the magazine open on that page at the workroom lunch table so his colleagues would have the best chance of stumbling across it.

At 67, he loved the job. He loved the financial independence - there was more fishing gear to buy, more overseas trips to plan. "He said to Mels: 'If anything happens to me I'm going to die happy because I've done a lot of things in my life."'

For Dr Taiaroa, descriptions of him as a "road worker" rankle. "He was a crane driver," she says. But it is not the description that hurts as much as what is meant by that. "They don't have the qualifications. They're not listened to. They're not valued."

The crews he worked with, the time on the road and the socialising. The photographs of his time on the roads shows a man often twice the age of those he's rooming and working with. He used to tell those young men, "Go get yourself educated."

Those photos show a man smiling, exuberant and full of the joy of life. For a man from such a line of chiefs, as with his children, he did all he could to raise those around to a level where they saw eye to eye. "He never looked down on anyone. That was the measure of the man."

- NZ Herald

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on red akl_n6 at 30 Jul 2014 20:15:29 Processing Time: 471ms