Where paths meet

Victoria alumnae Kerensa Johnston (Ngāti Tama, Ngāruahine, Te Ātiawa, Tainui), and Rachel Taulelei (Ngāti Raukawa, Ngāti Rarua, Ngāti Koata) studied Law together and years later ended up working for the same organisation and involved in an important Māori land case. In between, their careers took vastly different paths.

Kerensa Johnston (Ngāti Tama, Ngāruahine, Te Ātiawa, Tainui), and Rachel Taulelei (Ngāti Raukawa, Ngāti Rarua, Ngāti Koata)
Kerensa Johnston (left) and Rachel Taulelei (right)

The pair met in their first year while studying Bachelors of Law in 1993 and became fast friends.

Kerensa says, “Although we did the same degree and were in a lot of the same classes, we took quite different roads. Rachel had a really varied career after law school, whereas I was a bit more traditional and followed a more tried-and tested route.”

After graduating, Kerensa worked at the Court of Appeal and then as a solicitor at Buddle Findlay in Wellington, and at Westminster City Council in London. Later she worked as a law lecturer at the University of Auckland, and then opened her own private legal practice, Kerensa Johnston Law, in the Bay of Plenty.

By her own admission, Rachel took a slightly more circuitous route. After working as a Trade Commissioner at New Zealand Trade and Enterprise for almost 10 years in New Zealand and the United States, she founded Yellow Brick Road, a company which supplies seafood directly into restaurants across New Zealand and has a focus on sustainability.

Years went by and Rachel and Kerensa found themselves in senior positions at the Nelson-based Māori-owned Wakatū Incorporation—Kerensa as the Group CEO, and Rachel as the CEO of the wholly-owned subsidiary Kono, a food and beverage producer and exporter.

Reflecting on how they ended up back together, Rachel says “I guess it was a coincidence, but we’re also related through whakapapa, and there’s a school of thought that would say it’s not necessarily just luck”.

The story behind Wakatū Incorporation is a long and complex one. It was established by descendants of the original Māori customary owners of the Nelson region in 1977 to reclaim the management and control of their remaining land, known as the Nelson Tenths’ Reserves, which was managed by a Crown Trustee on their behalf from 1843-1977.

The Nelson Tenths’ Reserves were the compensation paid to the original Māori customary owners of Nelson when they agreed that the New Zealand Company could establish its second settlement at Nelson. Two key conditions of that deal were that one tenth of all land reserved for the Nelson settlement would be reserved in perpetuity for the Māori owners and held in trust for the owners’ descendants, and secondly, that all papakainga (ancestral community) and wahi tapu (sacred) lands would be protected from settlement.

However, although the New Zealand Company eventually purchased over 151,000 acres in the settlement, it only set aside 5,100 acres. When Wakatū was established in 1977, just 1,626 acres remained.

In 2012, Kerensa was appointed as the first General Counsel of Wakatū Group. A key responsibility was to lead the seven-year court battle against the Crown to remedy the breach of trust. She became CEO in December 2016, and in February this year Wakatū won its case in the Supreme Court.

The Court made a majority 4-1 decision in favour of Wakatū descendants, ruling that the Crown failed in its duty to reserve a proportion of settlement land for Māori owners as was required by the law. The Court also found that the Crown had breached its legal duty to preserve the homes and cultivation lands of the customary owners, their papakainga and wahi tapu. Kerensa says this outcome was a watershed moment for land disputes of this kind in New Zealand.

“While we accepted that we were likely to lose in the lower courts due to the complex nature of the case, we knew we had a chance in the Supreme Court.

“I was optimistic based on the legal merits of our case, but the pure legal arguments don’t always win on the day for Māori issues, because lots of other things can come in to cloud those decisions at times. That’s why it was so fulfilling to see such strong, clear judgments from Chief Justice Elias and the other Supreme Court judges, who saw the plain legal issues for what they were.”

In April last year Kerensa gave a seminar with Professor Alex Frame, hosted by Victoria’s Faculty of Law, which examined the background to the Wakatū case and the wider implications of the Supreme Court’s decision on New Zealand jurisprudence.

“Our case was unique in that we had volumes and volumes of evidence dating back to the 1830s… certainly the same sort of case could be brought in other parts of New Zealand but the distinction will be being able to prove the existence of a trust in circumstances where the claimants may not have access to the relevant evidence—it’s still a very high bar for Māori to reach.”

She says it was fantastic to be back in the Old Government Buildings discussing this landmark case with Wellington’s legal community.

“That building is so beautiful and it holds a lot of really happy memories. It was wonderful to go back there.”

Kerensa and Rachel agree that the Supreme Court ruling has had a profound impact on the whānau that make up Wakatū, as well as the wider region.

“I don’t think we can underestimate the impact that a decision like that has on the emotional wellbeing of our people, particularly a community of families that have been fighting for years and years to have their legal rights recognised,” says Kerensa. “There’s still a lot of work on the ground to do, but the overall result has been fantastic.”

With the court case almost behind them, they can focus on moving forward and nurturing their business portfolio, including Kono. Kono may not be a household name yet in New Zealand, but many of its products are, including brands such as Tohu wines and Annie’s fruit bars. Kono already has an office in Shanghai and a representative in San Diego, but while there are plans to expand the business internationally, Rachel says her primary focus is on sustainability.

“Our focus over the next couple of years is on land and water wellness—like others we’re concerning ourselves with thoughts of being good kaitiaki (custodians)—thinking ‘what does it mean to really look after the resources with which we’ve been blessed?’ We know that for our land and sea to be well, our people also have to be well. Love for the land and respect for the sea are paramount for us.”

Rachel recently won a Prime Minister’s Business Scholarship, allowing her to do a six-week course at Stanford University in 2018.

“While I get to go to Stanford, these awards are really about the businesses. It’s an honour to see Kono ranked up there with some of New Zealand’s top brands.”

Despite their long and varied careers, the pair agree that some of their most formative lessons can be traced back to studying Law.

“If I had to do another degree tomorrow I would choose Law again, because it enables you to articulate your thoughts in a very precise way,” says Rachel.

Kerensa agrees, and recalls a memorable early lecture. “I had Geoffrey Palmer for Public Law, and on the first day he came into the lecture theatre and said ‘I’m going to change the way you think’. I thought that sounded really scary at the time, but that’s exactly what happens over the course of a Law degree—it teaches you to think critically and effectively.”

Rachel adds, “People talk a lot about accepting failure—that it’s ok to fail—and ironically, the one paper of my entire degree I didn’t pass was Commercial Law! It turns out that I can still get on pretty well in the world of commerce.

“You just pick yourself up and move on, because it’s not like you don’t learn anything in the process—in fact you learn a little bit more.”