Te Atamira wins New Zealander of the Year for dedication to performing arts and te reo Māori

By Jessica Tyson

Jennifer Ward-Lealand Te Atamira has been awarded the 2020 Kiwi Bank New Zealander of the Year 2020.

She was presented with the award by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern last night after being recognised for her dedication to the performing arts and commitment and passion for te reo Māori.

In 2017 Ward-Lealand was gifted the name Te Atamira by Sir Tīmoti Kāretu and the late Dr Te Wharehuia Milroy, for her campaigning for te reo Māori me ōna tikanga. She is also an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit as well as a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit.

During her acceptance speech, Ward-Lealand gave a heartwarming mihi in te reo Māori to her whānau, her family within the performing arts industry and her te reo Māori teachers.

Ward-Lealand became fluent in te reo Māori after 11 years of training and has inspired many to learn and integrate the language in their own lives. 

Atamira Ward-Lealand with the Governor-General Dame Patsy Reddy at Auckland's Government House in 2019. (Source: Government House).

New Zealander of the Year patron, Rt Hon. Jim Bolger says, “Jennifer is an outstanding choice for New Zealander of the Year. Her devotion to the performing arts sector has profoundly shaped the industry to better look after its people and represent New Zealand more authentically.

“But her positive influence for change extends far beyond performing arts. Her lifetime of volunteering and advocacy for te reo Māori me ngā tikanga has helped revitalise the language in New Zealand and has created opportunities for the expression of Māori identity and culture.

“A living legend and a role model. Jennifer exemplifies what it means to be a New Zealander. She is truly an inspiration to us all.”

The Māori Language Commission says the naming of Māori language champion as New Zealander of the Year is a fitting start to International Mother Language Day.

Māori Language Commissioner, Professor Rawinia Higgins says, "Jennifer is an outstanding New Zealander whose commitment to our country’s mother language saw her learn but also encourage other New Zealanders to become Māori speakers.

"One of our goals is to encourage all New Zealanders to see te reo as part of our national identity, this is something we describe as Aotearoatanga: Jennifer embodies this perfectly.”

Through her relentless dedication to the rights and education of actors, and advocacy for te reo Māori, Ward-Lealand has enhanced the profile and integrity of New Zealand’s performing arts industry.

She is the President of Equity New Zealand, the union for performers who work in New Zealand’s entertainment industries. Equity advocates for higher wages, better terms and working conditions for performers, as well as developing industry standards for areas of concern such as child actors, collective bargaining, and the performance of nudity and simulated sex. The resources and sense of community which Equity provides are invaluable reference points for actors, helping prevent exploitation and coercion in the New Zealand screen and theatre industries.

Ward-Lealand was honoured at Government House in Auckland in 2019 alongside tohunga Pouroto Ngaropo.

Ward-Lealand is also at the forefront of the development of accredited intimacy coordinators in Aotearoa, a position which tasks her with ensuring the safety and consent of actors during vulnerable moments of performance.

Last year, Ward-Lealand starred as the lead in Vermilion, a New Zealand feature film about a composer who has synaesthesia. Vermilion was ground-breaking in that, along with Ward-Lealand and writer-director Dorthe Scheffmann, women accounted for nearly 95 per cent of all crew and staff– far above the 12 per cent of women who make up the general industry.

Along with numerous roles as a patron of arts companies, Ward-Lealand is a board member of the Actors Benevolent Fund, a charity that assists professional performers who find themselves unable to work due to injury, illness, or disability.

She is also a co-founder of the Actors’ Program, a school for aspiring actors and directors who are taught by some of New Zealand’s leading professionals.

Ward-Lealand’s fellow finalists for the title of Kiwibank 2020 New Zealander of the Year were Rocket Lab founder and CEO Peter Beck and neonatologist Professor Jane Harding.

She is the 11th recipient to receive the award following other prominent Māori figures including Mike King, Taika Waititi and Dr Lance O'Sullivan. 

Category Winners

  • University of Auckland Young New Zealander of the Year: Georgia Hale (Auckland)
  • Ryman Healthcare Senior New Zealander of the Year: Dame Margaret Sparrow (Wellington)
  • Mitre 10 Community of the Year: Good Bitches Baking (national)
  • Trademe Innovator of the Year: Bill Buckley – Buckley Systems Ltd (Auckland)
  • Kiwibank Local Hero of the Year: Nick Loosley (Auckland)