It's never been about me, it's always about we - Dame Areta Koopu

By Piripi Taylor

After over 30 years in social services, Mrs Areta Koopu CBE of Ngāti Konohi has today been named a Dame Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit. The Māori Women's Development director is one four Dames and three Knights in the 2019 Queens Birthday Honours.

She's dedicated her life to looking at how can we make a better world for everyone together. It's something that was instilled in her by family and others who played a role in her upbringing. It's them she thinks of when reflecting on the honour.

"When I saw the letter, I was shocked. I cried because it's not an honour for me alone," she says.

"I've never ever thought about it as being about me, I've always thought about it as being about we," she says about the work she has done.

Koopu grew up on the East Coast under the guidance of influential Māori leaders. Visionaries like Bishop Wiremu Panapa, the second Bishop of New Zealand who advocated for Māori and women in the Anglican church and looked closely at the problems caused by secularisation and urbanisation of Māori.

"He told me to look at everyone in the crowd as cabbages," she laughs as she remembers being given the responsibility as a young 12-year-old to address hundreds gathered at the once annual Hui Tōpū. 

She and her family would also play tennis with the son of Sir Apirana Ngata, WW2 veteran Sir Henare Ngata and his wife Lady Lorna.

These influences steered Koopu towards a career in social services for more than 20 years as a Marriage and Family Court counsellor with Marriage Guidance New Zealand and a member of Marriage Guidance New Zealand's national body.

"My passion became, if you can help parents, parents will help their own children. Stop sending them to social welfare. Even today they say it's too costly to work with you and me as parents, well, nothing has changed since I was in social work 40 years ago."

This led to positions on the NZ Māori Council from 1987 until 1992 and Te Kohanga Reo National Trust Board. In 1993 she was awarded the New Zealand Suffrage Centennial Medal and was elected National President of the Māori Women's Welfare League where she launched a claim that will finally be heard by the Waitangi Tribunal this year, now known as Mana Wahine Claim. It was initiated in support of Dame Mira Szaszy, alleging systematic discrimination against Māori women by the Crown since 1840.

"She was one of the commissioners on the first Sealords deal and at the last minute, the government decided she was too old and that just made me say I don't think so. I then got together with a group of younger Māori women and we decided to launch a claim with the Waitangi Tribunal," she says.

After being becoming a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in the 1994 Queen's Birthday Honours, Koopu eventually became a member of the Waitangi Tribunal in 1996 and that same year was chosen as the Human Rights Commissioner until 2001.

She was a member of the National Aids Foundation and a member of the Confidential Listening Service from 2008 to 2011.  She has also been a mediator for Housing New Zealand, based in Rotorua.

Dame Areta Koopu now joins a small but elite group of past Māori Women's Welfare League Presidents.

"I've always kept in touch with Dame June (Mariu) and I take Dame Georgina (Kirby) to church on Sundays," she explains.

Being a nanny to her five mokopuna keeps her busy these days as well as assisting with making tukutuku panels for Auckland's Holy Sepulchre Church to mark its 50th anniversary of becoming a Māori mission in August.