A kaumatua once jailed for occupying the Tauranga library apologised and a commissioner fought back tears as the city council progressed plans to offer Māori co-ownership of a core chunk of CBD.
The Tauranga City Council met to decide on a potential partnership with Otamataha Trust, a trust that oversees property on behalf of Ngāti Tapu and Ngai Tamarāwaho. The deal could see the land between Wharf St, Willow St, Harington St and Durham St - known as Site A of the city's civic precinct development Te Manawataki o Te Papa - transferred to a yet-to-be-established joint council-controlled organisation as part of a perpetual peppercorn lease.
City commissioners voted to progress with the plans, which will now go out for public consultation next month.
The council would lease the land, worth $16 million, from the organisation, which would be partly made up of mana whenua, for $1.
Historian Dr Alistair Reese told the meeting the Church Mission Society took the land from Māori in 1833 on the understanding the land was to be "held in trust".The intention was to land bank the area for the benefit of Māori during a time of high immigration and demand for land, Dr Reese said.
Dr Reese, who researched the history of the Te Papa Peninsula, said the Crown had later approached the mission society, eager to claim the land as its own. The mission society eventually "yielded", gifting four-fifths of the land to the Crown.
"It is maybe a tough statement, I think we built this city on betrayal and the loss of land. There's an old whakatauki (proverb) that says ... it is land that was taken, therefore it is land that needs to be returned."
A round of applause broke out after his presentation.
Ngāi Tamarāwaho representative Buddy Mikaere said the move would go "a very long way to righting a wrong that has been with us for generations".
Mikaere said local Māori at the time had been close to Archdeacon Brown, to the point some, including Mikaere's great, great, grandfather, adopted Brown's and his family's names.
However, the hurt felt by Brown's "abandonment" was such that no one from the hapū attended his tangi, Mikaere said.
Ngāi Tamarāwaho kaumātua and Otamataha Trust co-chairman Peri Kohu took the opportunity to formally apologise for his role in the occupation of the then Tauranga civic centre building in 1988.
The occupation was fuelled by frustration as the local council considered demolishing the old Town Hall to build a new civic building. It was felt that if the council was going to knock down the building, it should return the site to its original owners, mana whenua.
Kohu was one of five activists who barricaded themselves inside the library area of the building when police sent dogs in, resulting in a violent altercation involving paint, petrol and fire. He served 22 months of his two-and-a-half-year sentence for his actions.
Kohu told the meeting the time was one "where passions overtook ourselves and we had decisions and different ways rather than preparing to sit at the table and work things out".
"Thirty-five years later or so we've used a different tool to get the attention we have got."
Kohu said he was excited the commission had got to this stage where there was "a meaningful relationship in the form of the partnership".
Otamataha Trust manager Alan Tate said he expected there would be a section of the community "not too happy with this proposal".
"I [expect] they will be of the same demographic as me; elderly, male, white-haired, and far be it for me to speak for them but I'd like to speak to them. Before they jump on their keyboards, they should ask their children and more importantly their grandchildren what they think of the proposal. This is a solution for the future ... it's clearly the right thing to be doing for Tauranga and its future."
Commissioner Shad Rolleston said it was an opportunity to restore something "and put something right".
Rolleston, fighting back tears, took a moment to compose himself before continuing.
"What do we have to lose in acknowledging, restoring and reconciling this particular piece of land in this sense; that it will still be used for its purpose.
"If we go back to the intent, as Alistair described, that it be held in trust for the church - the church being the community - we don't have anything to lose. We have more to gain as a community and as Māori, mana whenua and non-Māori."
Commissioner Stephen Selwood said the move helped address the injustice and betrayal of the past before commissioner Bill Wasley said it sent a signal as to how the council could address issues from now and into the future.
Commission chairwoman Anne Tolley said she was honoured to move the recommendations.
"We stand together in this very special piece of land that represents a history going back to the early 1800s."
After the meeting, Otamataha Trust co-chairman Puhirake Ihaka said the decision was "massive".
"It's to do with returning the land to some form of partnership, working together in the spirit of reconciliation and we heard that word a lot today. We heard apologies, forgiveness, that were due for grievances.
"Now's the time to put that behind us and work together moving forward for the benefit of everyone."
Ihaka said 10 years ago he would not have necessarily believed the council and local Māori would get to this point. The land's history had been suppressed for decades, he said.
The commission's decision to work towards co-ownership of that piece of land was "very, very significant", Ihaka said.
Ihaka acknowledged the work the former council did in March 2020 to put these steps in place. The work was interrupted by the removal of councillors and the appointment of a commission.
A non-binding accord was signed by the council and trust on July 11. The accord is considered an initial step toward recording the collaborative partnership approach and the intention of working together.
The accord also set out the intention to implement co-ownership arrangements for the land.
It was expected the council-controlled organisation would hold ownership of the underlying land and enter into a ground lease with the council, which itself would be responsible for the construction of buildings on that land and retain ownership of those buildings.
The proposal will go out for public consultation in late August.