Real Life

Debbie’s journey of hope ‘I’ve had quite a life’

The Māori Party co-leader talks about the things she holds dear

When Debbie Ngarewa-Packer sits down to speak to the Weekly from her South Taranaki home, she has just finished Sunday family lunch.

Whānau is everything to the Māori Party co-leader, which is why she and husband Neil bought a 3.8 hectare block of reclaimed land near her tiny home town to live on with their children and grandchildren.

Away from the hustle of politics, it’s an inter-generational sanctuary where Debbie, 56, helps raise her mokopuna and grows food to share with the community.

Surrounded by the land and people she loves most, Debbie has everything she’s ever dreamed of. But the hard-working wahine will never forget the tough times she’s overcome on the way.

In her own words, she openly shares her life experiences, from escaping an abusive relationship to thriving as an independent parent, falling in love and weathering extreme financial hardship, to fighting for her people as an activist and now a politician.

“I was raised pretty sheltered in Patea around my hapū and iwi – the oldest grandchild in an intergenerational home.

Two generations of my father’s family worked at the freezing works and its closure in 1982 catapulted us into the sphere of the unknown.

It was a time of real hardship when a lot of our family left to look for work.

My mum had me at 17 and went on to be a principal; my dad went back to teacher’s college and became a head of faculty Māori.

Debbie’s parents Colleen and Hemi.

It was quite a prominent time in my life. I experienced stereotyping as a Māori woman from Patea, but I had also seen the strength of the collective and where others saw us one way, I saw us as absolutely strong and resilient, and able to look after ourselves.

Our original homestead is still there, but I’ve got a lifestyle block up the road between Patea and Hawera now. It’s one of the first blocks of land that was confiscated and it’s the first time ancestral land has been back with the family.

We live in this old 1800s villa that belonged to some of the first settlers. You can still see on the doorway written 1897 and 1912 where the kids would measure their heights.

I live quite a marriage with this home. It’s a mark of the first settlers and now I’m bringing up my grandchildren here on my tūpuna whenua [ancestral land].

Her extended whānau outside their 1800’s homestead.

My whole life has been living these contradictions, but it brings me hope.

It makes some people squirm, but I think it’s okay to be colonised. Because when we bring about what could have been, it was perhaps a marriage and a balance between Māori and settlers.

I’ve had quite a life. In my other careers, I have been an investment chair and director of various companies.

Women continuously grow and reinvent ourselves; the hardest thing is having others realise we have. I love that now women are saying, ‘I’m a great mum or nan and also a great businesswoman.’

There’s a 19-year age gap between my youngest and oldest children, and they almost got two different Debbies. When I first became a working mum, you had to masculine up to come out the other side.

With my youngest son Pawhare, now 19, I went off and finished my Masters degree, and my husband stayed home and looked after him. He was a fabulous dad and they’re still so close.

When we did it all those years ago, people asked if we were crazy. My husband left a secure job in the building sector, but it was such a great choice for us.

I really encourage others to look at how we can raise our kids as a blended family and village. Our child is so much better for it.

I’d had a bad previous relationship; in fact, it was shocking. Things were so abusive and got really ugly. I was lucky enough that my koko [granddad] lived with us and he raised me to believe I was a princess, so my default setting was to go back looking for that feeling. I found it with Neil. When we first met, as part of a wider sports’ group, I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, what is with this guy?’

Debbie’s koko Ueroa Hohepa Ngarewa “raised me to believe I was a princess”.

But here was this man who would hang his own clothes out and worked, and was really honest, and wanted to be part of a blended family.

He’s got the biggest heart and we realised pretty quickly we had probably met our soulmates. He still treats me like a princess. I don’t know how many years he’s been doing this, but he will still get up before he goes to work and make my smoothie. And when I come home from a long trip in Wellington, the bath is run and he asks, ‘What do you want for dinner?’

If you’re really secure in your own value as a woman and command that, then no one can take advantage of you in the times when we forget what we’re worth.

I often lecture to my nieces, daughters and cousins about this because in my day, you didn’t leave your man.

If you made your bed, you lay in it.

I remember the absolute shock from others, especially the older generation, when I said, ‘I’m going to make it on my own.’

On her marae Pariroa Pa.

Now we’re the grandparents and on our land, it’s ourselves, our daughter Hannah, son-in-law Jordan and their children, Hekaiaha, nine, River, eight, and twins Jordy and Charlie, 10 months.

My oldest daughter Jamie and her family lived with us until they could afford to buy something, and moved out. Now Hannah is doing the same, but we hope they can never afford to move out and stay with us forever!

It’s how I was raised and it works for us. Financially, it’s also important to try and work together as much as we can.

Debbie with her beloved whānau (from left): Malua, Hawaiki, Wai, Brian with baby Savaii, Jamie-Anne, River, husband Neil, Hekaiaha, Hannah with baby Charlie and his twin Jordy, held by his dad Jordan.

We have a big orchard, so we’re often picking walnuts, pears and plums. Then we will have a working bee bottling them and dropping them off.

We’ve worked bloody hard, but we’re lucky we’ve been able to reclaim ancestral land and look after ourselves. We know what it’s like to think, ‘How the hell are we going to make it work?’

In 1994, we’d just bought a house in Whanganui. A big economic crisis hit and a whole lot of builders got laid off, including Neil.

We left Whanganui with one truck of furniture and one truck of debt, and worked our backsides off to get back on track.

Two weeks after we moved to Auckland, my mum had an aneurysm and we nearly lost her. We couldn’t move home because we were in so much trouble financially.

My husband worked 12 hours a day and I had two jobs. We navigated ourselves through it, but it was tough.

I remember Neil going through the jackets looking for $5 for bread and milk. Thankfully, my mother-in-law, who raised nine kids, taught us how to make meals using very little.

I will still sew and preserve and op-shop, and if tomorrow we lost everything, I can still make meals out of nothing.

We wanted to come home as soon as possible, but it took us five or six years to get everything sorted. Then my oldest daughter was starting high school. Teenage years are really tough, so we made our way back to be part of the village.

A whole lot of things weren’t going right for our community. I got heavily involved in the seabed mining kaupapa and moved from having no politics to leading protests.

Of escaping from Wellington to the sanctuary of home, Debbie says, “I can lay down the arms and everything eases off.”

We could have easily gone and safely rested on our hard work, but we didn’t because we were raised knowing the value of giving back.

There’s not much we can do in life but set up a good course for the next generation.

My kids and grandchildren are all really involved and always have an opinion on policy discussions.

It’s interesting to listen to them. They challenge me and keep me relevant, and I really appreciate being able to feel relatable.

Speaking to media at Parliament.

Sadly, they are aware of what can happen when you are pro-Māori and outspoken. They’ve had to see some of the security measures needed and that makes me sad.

They don’t get how some people can be so anti one race because their Nanny Colleen, my mum, is Irish.

We raise them believing that we are equal. But we still come from a community where our nine-year-old is bullied because he’s bigger than a Pākehā boy.

I always tell him, ‘You are perfect and be proud. You have a Pacific body and it makes you strong, not obese.’

When you’re forever seen as not being the norm, it puts you into a default minority where your view is not as important, but we’re trying to raise them to know we are mainstream, we are normal.

I get space when I go to Wellington for Parliament. It’s very silent and I have this very sanitised, decluttered apartment.

Some weeks, I’m almost crying driving down the driveway because I just can’t wait to get home.

I often feel that I leave to armour up and go to battle, then when I come home, I can lay down the arms and everything eases off.

But the great privilege is, I have a platform others can only dream of to give another view of the people who often don’t get heard or seen.”

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