Stephen Lyon moved to the Cook Islands with his family in 2005. He calls this piece of paradise his home.
Now, after spending 15 years serving the community through his business and involvement in non-profitable organisations like the Chamber of Commerce, Lyon wants to be accepted as one of Cook Islands’ own.
He’s not seeking any more rights than what he is currently entitled to as a permanent resident of this country.
He just wants to be called a Cook Islander.
The law defining a Cook Islander says, no.
According to the Cook Islands Act 1915, in words that sound strange to our ears a century later, a “native” is a person belonging to any of the Polynesian races (including the Maori race), and includes a half-caste and a person of pure descent from any such race.
This was further defined in the Entry, Residence and Departure Act 1971-72, which said a Cook Islander was an indigenous Cook Islands Polynesian, and included any person descended from an indigenous Cook Islander.
Now, that definition is being updated again, in the Immigration Bill 2020 which is undergoing public consultation.
This bill defines a Cook Islander as a person of Polynesian race, descended from an indigenous Cook Islander. It also says a child adopted by an indigenous Cook Islander in manner recognised by Cook Islands law can also be referred to as a Cook Islander.
Lyon says a Cook Islander, and an indigenous Cook Islander or Cook Islands Maori, “should be, and are in fact, legally different things”.
“Any person that is recognised as a citizen of any country is known as whatever that country is called. An American, a New Zealander, a Malaysian et cetera. It is not tied to their ethnicity.
“The fact that the Cook Islands does not officially have its own citizenship should not preclude the same recognition that the permanent residents of the Cook Islands, whether indigenous or not, be known as Cook Islanders.
“I know this is a raw topic for many people of Cook Islands Maori descent.”
Lyon says when representing the Cook Islands on the international stage, the nation is more than happy to celebrate foreign national athletes as Cook Islanders.
Generally, society also recognises many longstanding residents as “locals or Kukis”.
Lyon says that acceptance should be formalised further in Cook Islands statute.
“That is my opinion on the matter, but at the end of the day, Cook Islanders very much establish their own destiny, and that is how it should be.”
Koutu Nui, the organisation consisting of sub-chiefs, met this week to discuss the Immigration Bill – and the definition of a Cook Islander turned out to be a hotly-debated topic.
The meeting was chaired by Koutu Nui president Terea Mataiapo Paul Allsworth.
Terea Mataiapo says they need the Cook Islander definition to include direct heritage and birth right.
He says references to native and indigenous would be acceptable, but Polynesian should be taken out in favour of “direct heritage or birth right to the 15 islands of Cook Islands indigenous or native to Cook Islands Maori”.
Some of the suggestions by members at the meeting included:
· In Land Court, follow the 1915 Act that uses the term “native”. In these days it means indigenous. Papa’a cannot be a native. Don’t want to change that.
· Native means a person belonging to Polynesian race and includes half-caste. But this issue of including Polynesian race is important; native should perhaps be reduced to Polynesian people with Cook Islands descent from the Cook Islands.
· Descent from parent or grandparent: in Land Court, anybody can produce genealogy and claim land. They could be descendants of someone who left 120 years ago and be approved by a JP if there are local supporters. Later on, if there is a succession order granted to somebody who has no proper blood right, this disadvantages other landowners by reducing the land available.
· Cook Islander, as indigenous to the Cook Islands, means a person who is Cook Islands Maori.
Terea Mataiapo says they want the government to amend the definition in new bill and existing law to: “Any person who has direct heritage, genealogy and blood right to the 15 islands of the Cook Islands and who is indigenous or native as a Cook Island Maori through his or her great-grandparents.”
Terea Mataiapo says the 1915 Act is supreme – to change it requires a two-thirds majority. This is reflected in the Cook Islands Constitution, which requires a three-quarter majority for change, he adds.
A written submission by the Koutu Nui will be presented to the Immigration select committee chaired by Internal Affairs minister Mac Mokoroa, in due course, says Terea Mataiapo.
Kairangi Samuela, the principal immigration officer, says the definition of a Cook Islander in the Immigration Bill has been one of the major discussions at public consultations this week.
It is a broad subject that may require further consultation and discussions, she acknowledges.
The Immigration Bill makes reference to the definition of a Cook Islander for purpose of traveling, entering and staying in the Cook Islands.
Samuela says they have not changed the definition of a Cook Islander in the Bill but adopted the one from the existing Entry, Residence and Departure Act 1971-72 – and added to it.
In the Immigration Bill, a Cook Islander and a permanent resident holder have the same rights when it comes to travelling in and out of the country. They may travel to, enter, and stay in the Cook Islands at any time and do not require a visa or permit.
However, a permanent resident holder can be removed or deported from the country if their permanent resident status is first revoked.
Samuela says the three core areas identified in the Immigration Bill are the success, safety and the security of the Cook Islands.
The new law changes immigration operations “drastically”, she says, to meet the modern challenges presented by technology, transnational crimes, and more migrant workers.