After a long and successful career, some might be tempted to step back and take it easy. But not Sir Mason Durie, who was presented with an honorary doctorate shortly before turning 80 at the end of last year.
Sir Mason, Rangitāne, Ngāti Kauwhata, Ngāti Raukawa, is well known for his work in Māori health and for his years at Massey University, which culminated in his being the instigator of Massey’s College of Health, which opened five years ago.
In 2017 he received the Blake Medal, New Zealand’s premium award for leadership, and in 2018 he spent the year as a panel member of the Mental Health and Addiction Inquiry. The panel held hundreds of meetings, read thousands of submissions, and delivered 40 recommendations for reform.
Sir Mason began his career as a psychiatrist, becoming the second Māori psychiatrist in New Zealand after Dr Henry Bennett. Key to dealing with growing community concern around the issue of mental health has been changing the focus on hospital treatment to a focus on community leadership.
The move away from an over-reliance on hospitals has been a welcome change from a century ago, when New Zealand had among the most psychiatric hospital beds per capita in the Western world. The shift in the 1970s toward community mental health care was welcome, but the next step will be an even sharper focus on wellness, Sir Mason says.
“You can’t have wellness if you have social and economic inequalities such as poverty, educational failure and unemployment. In that respect, achieving optimal standards of health and wellbeing cannot be left to the health sector alone.”
In early 2019 Sir Mason was announced as one of three finalists for Senior New Zealander of the Year. He is currently: an advisor to the Māori health organisation, Te Rau Ora; a trustee of Aorangi Marae near Feilding; and a patron, with his wife Lady Arohia, of Arohanui Hospice in Palmerston North.
At Massey Sir Mason was a key member of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences team and helped to establish Te Pu -manawa Hauora, the Māori Health Research Centre, in 1993 and the School of Māori Studies, Te Pūtahi-a-Toi in 1988. He was head of the school for 14 years before being appointed as Massey’s first assistant Vice-Chancellor (Māori), a role that expanded to include Pasifika and then new migrants.
College of Humanities and Social Sciences Pro Vice-Chancellor, Distinguished Professor Paul Spoonley, who put forward the honorary doctorate nomination, says that Sir Mason belongs among the two generations of “ground-breaking” Māori in modern New Zealand. One generation emerged early in the 1900s, and the other at the end of the 20th century, where Sir Mason stands alongside leaders such as Dr Ranginui Walker, Sir Robert Mahuta and Sir Tipene O’Regan, “… but of the latter, Sir Mason’s influence was the most comprehensive and powerful”, Professor Spoonley says.
Sir Mason’s determination to develop the aspirations of Māori students eventually led to a 10-fold increase in those completing doctorates over a 10-year period.
Sir Mason says there has definitely been a growing awareness of and interest among New Zealanders in learning te reo and recognising the potential of indigenous cultures to enrich modern societies.
“It’s a far cry from when I was growing up and you only had 10 minutes of Māori news on the radio at 6pm on Sundays. Te Ture mō te Reo Māori (the Māori Language Act) 2016 has helped.
“We have become something of a showcase for other indigenous peoples struggling to retain their [own] languages.”
Family and colleagues all deserve a share of his honorary doctorate, Sir Mason says. “The accolades are deserved by a wide group including colleagues, students and those working on marae and within their communities over a long period of time.”
Photo: Brendon O’Hagan, Sir Peter Blake Trust