There was a standing ovation at the end of the Reo Maori workshops at Rarotonga’s Sinai Hall yesterday.
Cook Islands News had quietly told library and museum curator Jean Mason, and Mason had discreetly passed on the news to Secretary of Culture Anthony Turua, and Turua delightedly told the 70 or 80 gathered leaders and cultural experts: 5-year-old Cyrus Taniela had won the right to keep his hair long.
Those 70 or 80 Cook Islanders rose to their feet in unison, and cheered.
There is nearly 5000 kilometres separating Sinai Hall from the courtroom in Brisbane, Australia, where the Queensland Civil and Administrative Tribunal had heard little Cyrus’ case.
But, says Turua, this showed that everything they had been working for – the protection and recognition of their language, their culture, their customary practices – has been recognised as a basic human right in that faraway courtroom.
“This family was very brave,” Turua says. “And a lot of Cook Islanders have supported them. It’s a great victory for Cook Islands.”
It was back in January that Cyrus’ aunty Gabrielle first contacted Cook Islands News: she was angry that in his first week at school, his teacher had taken aside his mum Wendy and told her she had to cut his hair.
For years, Wendy and Jason Taniela have been planning a traditional haircutting ceremony for Cyrus’ 7th birthday. Relatives have been saving up to come from Cook Islands, New South Wales, Niue and Samoa. Aunties have been sewing tivaivai for him.
Now, the school wanted his hair cut – or he would be expelled. Those were the rules, the principal said.
Cyrus’ big sister had been at Australian Christian College in Moreton for a couple of years; she was allowed to wear her hair long. But not Cyrus.
After Cook Islands News reported the family’s plight, the international media also followed up. In the subsequent six months, as the family has fought through Australia’s human rights tribunal process, little Cyrus’ name has appeared in the world’s media 18,800 times.
This week, the Queensland Civil and Administrative Tribunal handed down its judgment: the school’s uncompromising uniform policy breached anti-discrimination laws.
“I find that there was direct discrimination on the basis of race,” ruled Tribunal member Samantha Traves.
“The school says that requiring Cyrus to comply with the policy is promoting equality and uniformity.”
But the Anti-Discrimination Act applies a different concept of equality: “Namely, one that recognises the right to be different and treated just as favourably notwithstanding that difference.”
The Tribunal restrained the school from expelling Cyrus, and ordered them to provide a private written apology for proposing to strike him from the school roll.
Throughout this protracted and highly-publicised human rights battle, the Tribunal notes, Cyrus has walked unscathed. His parents have protected him from any distress. “Commendably, the burden of the litigation and its surrounding circumstances has been borne by Cyrus’ mother and father.”
The family’s barrister, Dr Chris McGrath tells Cook Islands News that Cyrus and his big sister Jaylia-Anna love the school and want to stay there.
Blithely unaware of the dispute between his parents and the school leadership, Cyrus runs up and hugs principal Gary Underwood when he sees him in the playground.
McGrath struggles to understand why the school thought its rules should trump the customary practices that were such an essential expression of a child’s race and culture. “I think it was just a blind-spot for them.”
He does not think this is a widespread problem in Australian schools, but he does believe this ruling will be reported in education publications, so other schools understand where to draw the line.
“I’m really happy for Wendy and Jason and Cyrus and Jaylia-Anna, but also for the Cook Islands community. Because win or lose, it was really important for them to stand up for their culture.”
When Wendy Taniela heard the Tribunal decision, she broke down in tears.
“She’s been totally overwhelmed by the support,” says Archie Atiau, from the Cook Islands Council of Queensland which supported the family through the Tribunal process.
“It’s been a long journey – she’s had a lot of sleepless nights with the stress, and worrying where to put her child.
“We felt there was a bit of arrogance on the part of the school. They’ve not really sat down with the family to discuss it – they had the discussions and made the decisions behind closed doors.”
There is still 28 days in which the school may choose to appeal the decision; after that is the question of who pays the legal costs, which are likely to be substantial.
Approached for comment by Cook Islands News, Gary Underwood has little to say: “I am on leave at present and happy to reply to you when I get back and catch up on the outcome.”
But Cook Islands cultural leaders like Archie Atiau and Anthony Turua and Jean Mason are delighted.
“I am so proud of this family for sticking it out,” says Mason.
“This decision reflects on us too as a culture and a nation. Because we are a small nation, people think we are insignificant – or not real! I bet this case had some people rushing to their atlases!
She adds: “This is a win against Anglo-Saxon hegemony. Schools generally have moved away from petty, pointless rules that are designed to render pupils infantile.
“Hopefully, from this decision, schools will focus on matters of substance in their teaching of children and appreciate that they need to accommodate the fact that humans are not all the same!
“Australia is a multicultural society and schools should adapt their rules to be sensitive to all and not just one culture.”
For now, says Atiau, it’s a great result – “not only for the family and for Cook Islanders, but for protecting cultural practices in general.”
He says it is worth noting that this had coincided with the #BlackLivesMatter movement.
“I said it to Wendy last night, you’ve gone down in history.”