Inia Tomas: ‘Get your arse back into the fight’
6 March 2020
In this interview with E-Tangata author Dale Husband, MBChB alumnus Inia Tomas explains some of his aims and efforts as a Māori doctor at Counties Mankau DHB, and the influence of his late mother, Associate Professor of Law Nin Tomas.
Among the flow of Europeans migrating to this country early last century, there were young Croatian men steering clear of the looming world war, many of them bound for the kauri gumfields in the north and then marrying into Māori whānau in those areas. Those families have enriched Aotearoa in a host of ways.
Take Nin Tomas, for instance, who became a force in the legal academic ranks at the University of Auckland and beyond — and was an international authority on the injustices suffered by indigenous peoples. Or take her son, Inia Tomas who, in this interview with Dale, talks of her influence, and also explains some of his aims and efforts as a Māori doctor in a New Zealand health scene where we’re still seriously short of Māori doctors and nurses.
Kia ora, Inia. I see that you have an interesting combination of names. Inia Matthew Tomas. How did that come about?
Well, my grandmother Hinerangi named me. And, for my first name, it was a choice between Rua or Inia. Mum wanted Rua. But my grandmother said: “You’re not calling him after a cave. Or a hole.” So it was Inia. But I think it was actually because she was a fan of Inia Te Wiata, the singer. And carver.
That would make sense. But where did the Matthew come from?
Do you know, I have no idea. I think Mum wanted Matthew to be my first name but my grandmother said: “No, you have to have a Māori name. You already have a Dally surname. So you’re not having a Pākehā first name. That has to be Māori.” So Matthew got relegated to second place.
Tell us about the Tomas line. Have you been back to the place where that name originates in eastern Europe?
Yeah. I have. My great-grandfather, Ante Tomas, came out with all the other Tararā from Croatia and settled in Northland, way back in the early 1900s, before World War One. They were avoiding that war. All these families were sending their young men out to the colonies to avoid conscription. And my great-grandfather ended up in the gumfields in the arse end of nowhere.
And there he married my great-grandmother Hera up in Tahanga, which is between Kaitaia and Taipa. They settled in Werowero/Lake Ohia, which is next door. They had two daughters and three sons — and one of those was my grandfather.
He went back to Croatia once, on a rugby tour. My mother, Nin, also went back to Croatia to rediscover our roots in a place called Tučepi on the Croatian coast. Then, about 10 years ago, I went back just to check it out and have a bit of an explore.
We’ve been associating with New Zealand Dallies all our lives. I still play football for Central United, a Dally soccer club in Auckland, and we had a few Dally mates over in Croatia. But none of us got to meet up with our whānau over there. They were hard to find. When my grandfather went over, he met his aunties and extended family. But we couldn’t find any. Anyway, we did check out Tučepi, and we now know that it’s a beautiful spot.
Years ago, I remember your mum recounting how, when she was over there, a Croatian woman, assuming that Nin was a Turk because she was dark, came across the street and spat at her. Apparently, there are some deep racial enmities in that part of the world.
Correct. The locals Mum was staying with told her that this old lady thought she was a Turk, or a Gypsy. That part of the world has a long history of conflict and the Balkan states, including Croatia, have a long history of fighting against invaders — and each other. I guess it takes a while for these memories to fade, and this woman spitting at Mum demonstrated as much.
When I was there I didn’t encounter these attitudes but there were still people living old-style, rustic, traditional lives. When my grandfather went back in the late ‘70s, there were those still with subsistence lifestyles — living off crops from their own gardens, or bartering for supplies, making their own wine, riding donkeys from village to village, and still holding on to folklore and unfriendly attitudes towards non-Croatians. Especially towards anyone looking like a Turk or a Gypsy.
My lovely wāhine, who’s a Pavlovich, has had me keen to learn more about the Dally immigrants — and it’s been as you say. But her links have given me cause to investigate a bit more clearly how the guys from that area arrived here. And I understand that, for a couple of decades, the young men were also escaping from a vine blight that was wrecking their winemaking livelihood in that part of the world. Over here, they were acknowledged by our old people as very hard workers. It’s not like they had anyone to lean on when they came here.
My grandfather, who was half Croatian, half Māori, used to talk about the Dallies all the time — about how hard they worked, and about their taretare clothes which they’d wear until they were literally falling off them. About them being hardcase, too, and shrewd businessmen who invested their money well. And being drinkers who were inclined to argue and fight.
I’ve seen all these characteristics in my Dally friends and rellies. But did I inherit all these traits? Maybe. Other than being tight with money I’ve never attributed them to my Croatian heritage. My success has been more to do, I think, with having my mother’s foot firmly up my arse from Day One.
We have very fond memories of your mum — she chaired the Mana Trust in our early days. And it was obvious you were the apple of your mum’s eye. But what did you admire most about Nin?
Well, there’s lots to admire. First of all, she went back to rediscover our Croatian roots. She was one of 11 kids, so I’ve got 10 aunties and uncles. But Mum was the only one who went back. And she was the only one who, of her own volition, learnt to speak Māori and learnt more about things Māori. And got involved.
The rest of my aunties and uncles are well and truly urbanised. And all my 22 cousins are urbanised and disconnected from things Māori. Everyone’s too scared to go back to the marae. No one speaks Māori.
So Mum went back. Rediscovered all that stuff about our Croatian and Māori whānau. She was also one of the founding members of the Waiatarau Kōhanga held in the Freeman’s Bay community centre back in the ‘80s. Which she helped start after I was born, with a bunch of other single mothers on the benefit. They taught all us kids Māori while they were teaching themselves Māori. She was so staunch about it that she kept me in kōhanga until I was six years old — I didn’t start school until 1986. She remained really staunch about the reo from then on.
The other thing people don’t know is that it was just me and my mother. She was a single mum during this time, on the benefit. And she essentially educated me in Māoritanga, and herself at the same time.
She was adamant that I also be able to succeed academically in the Pākehā world and I still remember her forcing me to read books or write stories or memorise times tables every day after school when I was at primary. She went to the University of Auckland with little support, and put herself through uni.
She [Nin Tomas] used to take me to all of her classes as well. Then she became a law lecturer at the university. She had a mind like a steel trap. And over the years, she moved up the ranks and became an associate professor.
She had a lot of support from certain mentors both at Māori studies — Ranginui Walker, Cleve Barlow, and Mere Penfold, to name just a few of them— and at the law school.
But, as for societal support, she basically did it all herself. Having said that, I should acknowledge that my grandfather did pay for all of her cars. So she never had that financial burden. We used to have boarders in our state house to help pay the bills as well.
As a youngster, you must’ve heard some interesting kōrero from the old people and from other visitors at the dinner table. I suspect the subject, at times, was the injustices towards Māori.
Yes, we had all these flash academics coming around to our house. There’d be Mum and these other Māori and like-minded Pākehā having serious discussions. Heaps of arguments, too. And, at the dinner table as well, there might be my grandparents, Nana and Dida, discussing all the ins and outs of these issues and how things were in the old days.
Mum was very passionate about the injustices that Māori have suffered, right up until she died in 2014. She was fighting against these the whole time. And she was recognised as a renowned, international academic on the subject of the injustices suffered by other indigenous people.
For instance, she went to Easter Island a couple of times to look at how Chile was administering that territory — in fact, they were stealing their land and stealing their fishing rights too. She studied the situation of the Native Americans in Canada and the USA, and of the Indians, the native people, in Chile as well. She went over and did a bit of work there. I think she also went to Spain and did some work with the Basque people.
You need to recognise, though, that as a kid, you often try to do the opposite of what your parents do. So a lot of the time I was actively not listening to a lot of what Mum had to say. But I couldn’t help but tune in because she was such a force.
And, when there was no one else to have these discussions with, she’d just run things past me. As a teenager onwards, we’d have these discussions on various issues — and she’d put her argument to me and I’d argue back against her because she was my mum and that’s what kids do.
Sometimes, we’d end up having big verbal, swearing fights and that’d be the end of the conversation. And sometimes, she’d talk me around and make me realise that it just hasn’t been fair what’s happened to Māori in New Zealand.
Now, in my current role in the medical world, I sometimes feel forlorn at the state of current health inequities for Māori and find myself thinking: “This is such a massive and difficult problem to fix. What’s the point? Why do we even try?”
At times like that, I just remember my mother, and I ask myself what she would’ve done. And, normally, that would come down to her telling me: “Stop being a soft-cock. Pick your nuts up. And get your arse back into this fight.”
That’s how we used to talk to each other.
We still mourn your mum’s loss, too early, way too early at the age of 57. It must’ve rocked your world. But let’s turn to your entry into medicine.
When it was coming to the time for me to go into university, my mother would say: “You’re going to university. There’s no question about that.” In fact, that was always how it had been. And, anyway, I’d been going to university classes with Mum from the age of four.
Luckily for me, there was the MAPAS system. That was the Māori and Pacific Admissions Scheme, that had been going since the late 1970s. Actually it hadn’t had much success in terms of attracting large numbers of Māori into medicine because it wasn’t the done thing for Māori kids to become doctors.
The general attitude at med school then was that, as a MAPAS student, it was going to be difficult for you, and if anyone was going to fail it would be the MAPAS students. And it was an unfortunate reality back then, too. “We’ll do our best. You do your best. And, hopefully, you’ll get through med school, and you can be a GP, if you want, because that’s about all you fullas will be able to do.”
That was the attitude of some people at med school. And it was explicitly said to some of my Māori colleagues by one of the lecturers, when he thought they were Pākehā. Having said that, despite the undercurrent of resentment from some staff and classmates, there was also a lot of support given to us by certain members of the admin and academic staff.
But there was no focus at all on Māori health at med school. Not when I was there. None. Although this has changed and there seems to be much more now.
I deliberately chose Middlemore for my clinical training years as a student and then, in my first year as a doctor, I came back to Middlemore. It’s full of Māori and Pacific patients. I feel an affinity for our Māori and Pacific whanaunga and I just felt that section of society needed more help.
I’m very comfortable with them. I like seeing them. I get on with them and I feel a connection with that group. Us, I would say, rather than them.
So, roll on a few years and things have started to pick up in terms of the Ministry of Health focusing on equity for Māori, and Pacific as well.
I managed to get through my training as an emergency doctor, passed my exams, and then I was fortunate enough to secure a role as an emergency medicine consultant at Middlemore, which is where I always wanted to end up.
Once I’d secured a consultant position, I was asked if I’d be able to take on an extra role in the DHB looking at ways to increase the numbers of Māori doctors in our DHB. That came about because Wendy Walker, Ranginui Walker’s daughter, had been working at Middlemore for 30 years and fighting her own battle to improve things for Māori patients and doctors at our hospital.
She shoulder-tapped me and said: “Hey, I’ve got a role I want you to do and we can start together. It’s called Whakamana Tākuta Māori, and the job is to increase the number of Māori doctors at this hospital — with a view to making this a better hospital for Māori patients. And your job is also to support all the Māori doctors and students that come through this hospital and encourage them all to come and work here when they qualify.”
Wendy subsequently retired and handed the battle over to me. That’s what I’m doing at the moment, one day a week, at Middlemore.
It’s important work, Inia. “Bro-repairs” is the slang term at Middlemore. But it must dismay you to see so many Māori fronting up at the ED (Emergency Department). I can see the advantage of recruiting more and more Māori staff. But what other moves are important?
Well, I do see a lot of Māori. Māori make up 20 percent of the presentations to our ED. And at times you get a bit forlorn and think: “What’s the point? This is insurmountable. How are we going to improve the health and wellbeing of these fullas when they’re being smashed so badly by colonisation?”
They don’t speak Māori. There’s a lot of our people in gangs. They’re disconnected from their marae and their iwi. It would help heaps with our Māori patients if we had more Māori doctors who have a natural affinity for Māori patients and understand what they’ve been through and where they’re coming from.
I’ve witnessed a lot of cultural misunderstandings and cultural clashes between non-Māori doctors and Māori patients — not connecting, not seeing eye to eye, actively in conflict — and our Māori patients suffering because of it. That’s one move. Having more Māori doctors at our hospital.
The other move is to make our DHB a more attractive place for Māori doctors and patients by being a 100 percent Māori-friendly hospital. The way we demonstrate that is by educating all of our staff about Māori tikanga and basic reo, and making it a safe place to use all those things. Giving it a more Māori premium lining.
If we do that for our Māori patients who are definitely the highest risk, there’s the bonus that we’re going to improve things for every other patient. It’s a really big job — and it’s especially hard to make it a Māori-friendly hospital when we’ve got only nine Māori consultants out of hundreds of staff. Only 2.5 percent of the senior doctors are Māori. And a few of those are only just reconnecting and still aren’t sure how to operate in a Māori way themselves.
How does this approach affect the way we might deal with people of other ethnicities? We’re such a culturally diverse city these days. How important is this change?
For some time, the Ministry of Health has been saying it’s quite important. And, just last year, they initiated a big push for health equity for Māori. But the ministry can say one thing without it translating into any worthwhile action unless there are people pushing it at the coalface. And it’s hard to push that agenda when so few of your staff are Māori.
But, if you were to approach all patients with a tikanga Māori lens on — and thinking about manaakitanga, whakamana, aroha, whanaungatanga, and all of those ways that Māori operate on the marae — I believe you’d address the cultural considerations, not just for Māori, but for our Pacific, Pākeha, Malaysians, Indians, and any other culture you can think of.
And the way you could do that, is by accepting that Māori are the tangata whenua and mana whenua in this hospital and that we should be operating through a Treaty partnership. And, as such, we’re obliged, as Māori, to operate it in this way.
That’s how it should be. We espouse this all the time. But does it happen? It gets lost somewhere between Ministry of Health directives and what happens on the shop floor with all the pressures of running a hospital day to day.
There needs to be a solid message. It just needs to be pushed in every facet of the hospital. The way it does that is, I think, having more Māori in there.
Reassuringly, there’s a lot of young Māori doctors coming through now. The MAPAS scheme in Auckland and the scheme they have down in Otago are now generating graduating classes that are 16 percent Māori. And that’s population parity.
I’ve noticed, because I’m also the Māori Interim Supervisor for all the Māori junior doctors, that a lot of these guys are really “woke”, shall I say, if you can be woke to things in your own culture. But they’re really positive about it. Not scared. Not whakamā about it. Whereas old fullas like me and my generation do have a lot holding us back.
Even the non-Māori junior doctors, they’re more awake to this sort of thing as well, and receptive. It’s a real sea-change from what I was growing up with in the ‘80s, ‘90s and early 2000s, where anything Māori was often scoffed at, in the media and in the hospital.
There’s so much going on now in an effort to face up to the inequities in health treatment, that it’s a topic we need to turn to frequently — particularly through hearing from well-informed professionals such as you, Inia. So we should put that on our agenda. But, before we end this conversation, perhaps you could touch on your life outside of Middlemore.
I’m pretty boring, Dale. Rebecca and I have three little kids — two, six, and eight. They smash me at home. They take up all my extra energy — apart from when I’m playing soccer with the over-40s at Central United with a few really top quality players, including some ex-All Whites. And that’s about it.
But I especially enjoy seeing my kids growing up in a rumaki environment at Te Kura o Ritimana in Grey Lynn-Ponsonby, learning to speak Māori. One of them, our oldest boy, is white, white, white, with blue eyes and blond hair, and can rattle off Māori like nobody’s business. And his young brother is browner than me and can do the same. Their sister will be starting kōhanga there this year and I’m looking forward to seeing them all on stage in the same kapa haka group in a few years’ time.
I also enjoy teaching junior doctors and bringing these young Māori doctors up to take over from me because, to be honest, I’m not a born leader but some of these fullas are. I can tell. And I’m hanging out for the time when, in about five years, they can take over some governorship roles in the hospital, so I can go back to my couch, and the kids.
Dr Inia Tomas is a graduate of the Faculty of medical and Health Sciences and now works at Middlemore Hospital. His late mother, Dr Nin Tomas, was an Associate Professor at Auckland Law School.
This article reflects the opinion of the author and not necessarily the views of the University of Auckland.
Used with permission from E-Tangata, Inia Tomas: ‘Get your arse back into the fight’, 16 February 2020.
Nicola Shepheard | Media adviser
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