One of Māoridom’s most respected figures, Sir Wira Gardiner, has died aged 78.
Gardiner (Ngāti Awa, Ngāti Pikiao, Whakatōhea, Te Whānau-ā-Apanui) was a soldier who went on to become a celebrated public servant, serving as a founding director of the Waitangi Tribunal.
He died at home with his family in Gisborne, a family statement said.
“In accordance with his express wish that public health be prioritised, and the demands on frontline workers be recognised, there will be no tangihanga for Wira at the marae,” the statement said.
“At some time in the future, when our country is restored to ordinary life, we will gather to mark Wira’s passing, acknowledge his contribution, and celebrate a good life well lived.”
His family thanked staff at Whakatāne’s Kathleen Kilgour Centre, which provides radiation treatment for cancer patients.
Born in Whakatāne, Gardiner was educated at Whakatāne High School, Canterbury University and King’s College, London.
In October last year, Gardiner stepped down as Oranga Tamariki’s acting chief executive,after taking more than a month of medical leave.
He had taken the role in February after embattled chief executive Gráinne Moss stepped down.
His appointment followed months of scrutiny over the agency’s controversial practice of “uplifting” predominantly Māori infants into state care.
Gardiner had served in the army and went on to hold several leadership roles as a public servant, including a founding director of the Waitangi Tribunal, founding head of the Iwi Transition Agency and founding CEO of Te Puni Kōkiri, the Ministry of Māori Development.
The seventy-eight-year-old also chaired the Tertiary Education Commission, Te Papa museum’s board and the Local Government Commission, as well as holding senior positions.
He was also a respected Crown facilitator and treaty negotiator.
In November last year he was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Waikato.
The author of seven books spanning a range of topics including haka, the Māori Battalion and political biography, he was made a Knight of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2009 for his contribution and services to Māori.
Back in 2019, the former professional soldier published a book called Ake Ake Kia Kaha E! Forever Brave.
“This is probably the biggest but the easiest book I have ever had to write. I never had writer’s block or moments of doubt and my pen just kept flowing, well metaphorically,” Gardiner said at the time.
In May 2016, he travelled to Greece and Crete to visit battle sites where the NZ Division fought in April and May 1941, matching the theory from his book with the actual locations of the battles.
He was raised by te reo speaking parents in Rotoiti but did not learn the language until aged in his 40s. He later spoke candidly about the challenge and importance of mastering the language.
“My hapa, or my sins, were numerous, but the listeners, even though you could see them screwing their faces up, nevertheless they paid me the tribute of not saying ‘E noho ki raro, kāti ki te waha – sit down and shut up’,” he told The Spinoff in December last year.
Gardiner is survived by his wife, former National MP Hekia Parata. The couple had two children.
He also had three other children from his previous marriage to former MP Pauline Gardiner, including film producer Ainsley Gardiner. He was also koro to many mokopuna.
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