Race Unity Day on Sunday was special. I have been attending the annual event in Victory Square for 20 years but never was it more poignant. I never thought New Zealand would ever experience the sort of racially motivated atrocity that I associated with Nazi Germany, the Bosnian war or the 9/11 attacks in the US. March 15 was a brutal wakeup call that racial hatred exists in dark corners of all societies, including ours.
The delay in Race Unity Day for a week was appropriate. We first needed time to grieve for the 50 lives lost and to support our Muslim community. My work last week was dominated by organising with our Muslim community the ‘Hands around Nelson’s Mosque’ commemoration in Hardy Street. I am so grateful to all those who generously contributed and the thousands of Nelsonians who participated. It was a powerful statement to have Nelsonians of all faiths, all cultures, all political persuasions and all ages hand in hand surrounding our Muslim community in grief and love.
There will be months of debate ahead on tightening our gun laws, strengthening our security services and better regulating the spread of hate on the internet. However, the best insurance against the sort of atrocity in Christchurch is tackling the cultural intolerance that sparks such violence.
That is why we need to be so appreciative of the work of our Multicultural Nelson Tasman organisation and people who lead it like Luz Zuniga and Mary Bronsteter. Their work is about much more than the beautiful national costumes and tasty food stalls on display at Race Unity Day. It is about appreciating the diversity of humanity and that people from all corners of the world share the same basic human desires to love, to get ahead and to live in peace.
My wife Linley and I’s lives were hugely enriched as AFS exchange students to different parts of the world for a year as teenagers. The AFS programme was initiated in 1914 by ambulance field staff from WW1 desperate to prevent the suffering from racial conflict and war. Exchange programmes are just as important today. I thank our schools and polytechnic, the programme coordinators, host families and organisations like Rotary that support this work for cultural understanding.
My challenge from Race Unity Day is for us all to make an effort to be more inclusive. We need to put aside our shyness, the language barriers and worry about causing offence and engage more. It might be as simple as saying “Hi” with a smile at the supermarket queue, encouraging your child to invite a new friend home to play or including your new work colleague at your next BBQ.
The tragic loss of life in Christchurch will forever be a stain on New Zealand’s reputation as a safe, tolerant and peaceful country. We cannot undo it but we must use it to drive a renewed commitment to our core kiwi values of freedom of religion, racial equality and zero tolerance of violence.