Dame Tariana Turia's decades of tireless work have been recognised with a top award, writes Jamie Morton.

"To know ourselves, our strengths, our challenges and chart our own course."

To Dame Tariana Turia, who came to prominence as a leader during 1995's 79-day Moutua Gardens protest and went on to co-found the Maori Party, those have always been words to live by.

Four years after leaving Parliament, Turia has tonight received the Blake Medal - the top honour for leadership given by the Sir Peter Blake Trust.

Presented by Governor-General Dame Patsy Reddy at a ceremony aboard the HMNZS Canterbury in Auckland, the award recognised inspirational leaders who had shown determination - much like the late great yachtsman whose legacy the trust continues.

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By the time the wider public came to know Turia, she was already recognised within Maoridom as a trail-blazing leader, having launched Te Oranganui Iwi Health Authority, New Zealand's first and largest iwi-led PHO.

Turia served 18 years in Parliament as an MP, leaving Labour and helping establish the Maori Party amid the furore of the foreshore and seabed debate in the early 2000s.

"It's not about making the popular choice," she said.

"It's about making the right choice."

Among her biggest accomplishments was gaining tens of millions of dollars in funding for rheumatic fever prevention, an exhaustive smoking reform campaign which spanned everything from packaging to taxation, and her flagship kaupapa, Whanau Ora.

Today, 250 Whanau Ora navigators operate around the country, helping Maori and Pasifika families develop plans to better their lives.

A mother of six children - and a grandmother of 27 and great-grandmother of 33 - Turia was raised in the small village of Putiki, on the Whanganui River.

Among her mentors was Professor Whatarangi Winiata, who has often reminded her to lead a life according to the tikanga and teachings she'd grown up with.

"Our elders have always held me to account, and I have loved that."

When a Treaty of Waitangi settlement gave the Whanganui River its own legal identity - and thus the same rights as a person - Turia was fittingly appointed to act as its voice, something she called "the most important role of my life".

While she'd never thought of herself as a leader, she believed the ability to lead resides in everybody – it just needed to be identified and encouraged.

"She believes in conducting conversations in such a way that they enhance the mana of others," said Te Putahitanga o Te Waipounamu chief executive Helen Leahy, who has worked alongside Turia for two decades, and wrote her biography.

"What she has done has been transformational for this generation and generations to come."

Sir Peter Blake Trust chief executive James Gibson described Turia as one of New Zealand's "exceptional and courageous" leaders who had always served in the best interests of her people.

"Her tireless campaigns to help others prosper is an outstanding leadership legacy."

Turia was honoured alongside Blake Leader Award recipients Peter Beck, Dr Miles Gregory, David Cameron, Ali'imuamua Sandra Alofivae, Soana Akolotu Pamaka and Associate Professor Rochelle Constantine.

Peter Beck

Peter Beck's life work has placed New Zealand at the forefront of an exciting new era in spaceflight and access to orbit.

Having dreamt of space flight all his life, the engineer-turned-entrepreneur took Kiwi ingenuity on a pioneering journey into space, and in the process built a billion-dollar business from a seemingly implausible dream.

Rocket Lab is now established in both New Zealand and the United States as a premier institute for innovative space systems.

This year, Rocket Lab completed its first orbital launch, becoming only the second private company in the world to do so, and the first private company in the Southern Hemisphere to reach space.

Dr Miles Gregory

Dr Miles Gregory took a Shakespearean dream, inspired by his daughter, and turned it into a modern-day New Zealand success story.

The Auckland artistic director is the founder and visionary behind the world's first Pop-up Globe theatre, recreating a full-scale working replica of 1614 London's famous venue.

"I was reading Nancy, my daughter, a bedtime story," Gregory explained.

"It was a picture pop-up book and one of the pop-ups was the Globe Theatre. Nancy asked whether we could go there. I said, 'we can't'.

"'The nearest Globe replica is a long way away...' then I stopped and thought.... a pop-up Globe... and now here we are."

Since it opened in 2016, more than 450,000 people have seen Pop-up Globe productions over four seasons in Auckland and Melbourne.

David Cameron

Educator David Cameron invented a series of website tutorials which have helped countless young people pass exams, and access the careers of their dreams.

As a young teacher, searching for innovative ways to support his students' learning and help them stay in school, he developed LearnCoach.

Since launching in 2012, LearnCoach has provided 150,000 students with individual tuition – all up, those students collectively watch around a million free video tutorials each year.

Cameron has continued to innovate, adding university courses to the mix and, recently, launching New Zealand's first Second-Chance School, where refugee centres, prisons and hospital wards can instantly become pop-up classrooms.

He is leading New Zealand education into an exciting new era, empowering dozens of disadvantaged communities.

Ali'imuamua Sandra Alofivae

A lawyer of 29 years, Ali'imuamua Sandra Alofivae has devoted herself to advocacy for families and youth, particularly within South Auckland's Pasifika community.

In doing so, she has ensured that every child she comes across has the best chance to make their mark.

Alofivae believes strong communities are built by families and whanau able to flourish in their surroundings.

She has stood by this belief while serving in various leadership roles including Families Commissioner and key board positions in health, social welfare, and not-for-profit social service.

Her hands-on role as a Families Commissioner would eventually lead to the 2014 Vulnerable Children's Act – a bold move to better protect vulnerable children by improving their well-being.

Soana Pamaka

Tamaki College principal Soana Akolotu Pamaka is relentless in pursuit of any tool, programme or innovation which could give her students an edge.

Pamaka sees her role as not only shaping the school, but also the community within which it sits.

Her motto is: If we can get it right as a school, then the whole community will benefit.
Soana became New Zealand's first Tongan secondary school principal in 2006 and has since led Tamaki College through a process of transformation and innovation.

She has worked with a number of partners to lift academic performance, expand job training, introduce world-class digital learning programmes and provide a multi-faceted health service at the Decile 1 school.

Associate Professor Rochelle Constantine

An accomplished biologist and an inspirational lecturer, Associate Professor Rochelle Constantine is an a relentless champion for the marine environment.

Her academic record, as one of New Zealand's most distinguished marine ecologists, spans decades of groundbreaking research into the habits of marine mammals.

Her research has led to expanded protection for humpback whales and Māui dolphins and revision of international dolphin-watch tourism practices.

Her accomplishments as a conservation campaigner are just as significant.

She led the successful campaign to slow traffic in the Hauraki Gulf, all but eliminating whale-strike by seagoing vessels in the region.

Her work as a researcher and passionate marine science lecturer is an inspiration to students in the University of Auckland's School of Biological Sciences and Institute of Marine Science, where she shares her wide knowledge and resolve.