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The reinvention of Ashburton

Namechecked by Paula Bennett as a possible destination for Auckland housing refugees, the mid-Canterbury town is already swelling with new arrivals.

Photo/Joseph Johnson
Photo/Joseph Johnson

"Wow. There are a lot of you guys here,” says Kulimoe‘anga “Stone” Maka, as he looks around the crowded room in the Ashburton Art Gallery. The Tongan-born, Christ­church-based artist is addressing about 100 members of the town’s Tongan community, who have gathered for the opening of the a travelling exhibition Tonga ‘i Onopooni: Tonga Contemporary. There are speeches, songs, dances. Children run between exhibits. Three roasted pigs are served for a communal feast.

It’s not a showcase for all things Tongan, says gallery manager Shirin Khosraviani. “It is about being respectful to the local Tongan community.”

Before she moved to Ashburton four years ago, Khosraviani, a Baha’i who fled Iran with her family when she was eight, did not know that community even existed. “I didn’t know there are four Tongan churches here or that there is a huge Samoan community.

“The more I got to know Ashburton, the more I realised there are a lot of people who had moved here and were living here who weren’t being truly represented. Yet galleries are meant to represent communities. They have a heartbeat, they are alive. And the hope is that because of that energy, we can reflect what is happening in our community.”

That community is changing. Between 2001 and 2013, the Pasifika population in this mid-Canterbury district jumped from 114 to 1017; the Asian population went from 192 to 1179; the number of those classified Middle Eastern or Latin went from 39 to 282. The 195 members of the Mid Canterbury Newcomers Network represent 30 ethnicities, including people from Asia, South America, Eastern Europe, the UK, the Middle East and Africa.

Evidence of these changes is growing. Church congregations are swelling – according to the 2013 census, Ashburton is now the most Christian place in Canterbury. Rugby, soccer and basketball teams have been boosted by new Pasifika, Somalian and Filipino players. For lunch, you can choose between a palabok from Dandin’s Carinderia Filipino restaurant, a momo from the Nepalese food truck, Fijian sweets from the Travellers One Stop shop and sashimi from the Miyabi Japanese restaurant.

Shinonsen Mayor Hideki Okamoto from Japan’s main island lunches with Ashburton Mayor Angus McKay. Photo/Joseph Johnson
Shinonsen Mayor Hideki Okamoto from Japan’s main island lunches with Ashburton Mayor Angus McKay. Photo/Joseph Johnson


In the outlying districts, small rural schools, once struggling with falling rolls, are now full. Last year, on June 12, pupils at the remote Dorie School, just south of the Rakaia River, celebrated Philippines Independence Day in honour of the Filipino families now associated with the school.

“We raised the Filipino flag,” says principal Anthony Dorreen. “Filipino kids sang the national anthem and led the assembly with dances, songs and stories. Their parents put on lunch.”

The school is more secure (the roll has jumped from 38 to 69 in four years) and, he says, New Zealand-born pupils “are gaining an insight into how other people live”.

But this is Ashburton, nicknamed Ash-vegas, town slogan “Ashburton – whatever it takes” (pranksters would paint out the “it takes”). A traditionally conservative rural town of 18,500, in a district of 32,000, planted on a vast expanse of plains and swampland bound by the Southern Alps, the Pacific Ocean and the Rakaia and the Rangitata rivers, prospering on the back of sheep, grain and seed. Downstairs from the art gallery, the museum has a portrait wall of pioneering Cantabrians: bearded men and high-collared women, strong, stoic and white.

Mayor Angus McKay, a fourth-generation Cantabrian, describes the Ashburton of 40 years ago as “European, no one else really welcome, some bigotry”. But as sheep and cropping gave way to dairy farms, as huge irrigators stitched together impossibly green fields, the demand for labour grew. Auckland didn’t want to work here, says McKay. Christchurch didn’t want to invest. Ashburton, as with other rural towns, had to look further afield.

Father Joselito Quinones, of the Catholic Church of the Holy Name, with parish priest Rev Geoff Gray. Photo/Joseph Johnson
Father Joselito Quinones, of the Catholic Church of the Holy Name, with parish priest Rev Geoff Gray. Photo/Joseph Johnson


When Sione Taiala came to live in Ashburton with his Palangi wife in 1974, the Tongan community consisted of two women, both in “mixed marriages”.

Tongans are proud of belonging to the only surviving kingdom in the Pacific, he says, “and we have our own traditions, but you merge slowly into the community and become what I call black Pakeha.

“We like to relate to other races, but this is a predominantly Pakeha culture, so you have to learn to adopt some of the things that I believe are good about Pakeha culture. Some things are not really good in Tonga, so no point in hanging onto them.”

At the time, Auckland had “a bit of racism”, he says, but Ashburton “was very accommodating and we felt quite at home”.

In the early years of the new millennium, the Pasifika population of the Ashburton district grew as people from Samoa (admitted under the immigration quota system), Tonga and the Cook Islands came or were recruited for jobs at ANZCO Foods Canterbury (formerly CMP Canterbury) and the Silver Fern Farms meat-processing plant.

A former CMP human resources manager told Deborah Gewertz and Frederick Errington, authors of Cheap Meat: Flap Food Nations in the Pacific Islands (2010), these earliest arrivals in Ashburton “experienced a fair amount of animosity. There was a fair amount of culture shock for everyone. It was hard for everyone to adjust … In all fairness, we didn’t prepare either the Pacific Islanders or the local people well enough.”

But initial reservations appear to have given way to tolerance. Today, of ANZCO’s 950 staff, 53% were born outside New Zealand, most in the Pacific region. Site manager Chris Baird says that many will apply for residency, settling their families in the small rural communities.

Ashburton children at play: Maia Gallegos, two, and Eliza Middleton, three. Photo/Joseph Johnson
Ashburton children at play: Maia Gallegos, two, and Eliza Middleton, three. Photo/Joseph Johnson


The more recent spate of dairy conversions saw a further jump in demand for labour. Again, as McKay says, New Zealanders were reluctant to meet the growing demand, “so agencies started importing workers and found they could get them from the Philippines”. Filipinos now make up 10% of the district’s population, working on farms as well as in local businesses and, unsurprisingly for arrivals from the staunchly Catholic country, in churches.

Father Joselito Quinones arrived at the Catholic Church of the Holy Name four years ago. Even then, he says, the congregation had a strong Filipino contingent. “Filipinos are usually churchgoers, so when they come to Ashburton, they would look for the church, they will go to Mass. Most have families here with them so they’re not homesick. We try to integrate within the parish, but we also try to preserve our culture and our beliefs. We laugh, we party, we eat. Ashburton is very friendly. Charity is being practised here.”

Civil engineer Hernando Marilla arrived three years ago with his wife and three young children. He found a job with the Ashburton District Council, good schools for their children (they chose the public Ashburton Borough School over the Catholic school, so their children would mix with locals), a supportive network of Filipinos and a healthy environment.

“In the Philippines, children grow up inside the malls,” Marilla says. “Swimming pools, skating rinks – they are all in the malls. Here, kids can go to the domain, the lakes, the mountains.

“Starting again from zero is quite intimidating – we didn’t know anything about New Zealand, we had no idea what Ashburton was like – but Ashburton is very accepting. We love it here. We consider it our home. We’d like to retire here.”

But rapid demographic change was never going to be easy. A former supermarket worker shakes her head – too many Asians, she says, too many Islanders. A bar manager mutters about “teething problems”. Behind the counter of a clothing store, two women discuss some of their non-English-speaking customers – pushy, unfriendly, but then, one says, “it must be hard in a strange country.”

Senior Sergeant Scott Banfield at Ashburton Police declined to be interviewed for this story, but incidents of brawling in the town have been linked by some to gang culture. But tension between different Pacific Island groups, says Mid-Canterbury Cook Islands community leader Tony Vainerere, is old news.

“In the past, we have had issues, and it still happens – odd people are still being brought up in that environment, still carry that with them.”

Of the town’s redneck reputation, he reckons “we could say it is still there, some. When I came to Ashburton in 2005, there were only about 50 Pacific Islanders. I found it … different, nice and quiet. But there were people who didn’t like what they saw. Even my children going to school have been called names – that is when parenting comes into play. Over the past three to four years things have changed. Some people still hold onto it, but more people are accepting Pacific Islanders as part of the community.”

Mid-Canterbury Cook Islands community leader Tony Vainerere. Photo/Joseph Johnson
Mid-Canterbury Cook Islands community leader Tony Vainerere. Photo/Joseph Johnson

On a weekday afternoon, Ashburton College principal Grant McMillan watches his students trail towards the school gates, small clusters of twos and threes speaking a range of languages. Of the school’s 1182 pupils at the end of 2015, more than a fifth are neither New Zealand European nor Maori. Over the past decade, the rugby team has reflected seven or eight cultures. There are more Esol teachers, a range of cultural events, five to seven different literacy programmes.

“In many ways, the expanding diversity in our community has been really well supported and parts of our community that stereotypically might have been seen as redneck and resistant have been leading it. Time to time stuff boils up. Low-end teasing, name-calling, bullying. And we take it very seriously. One student got called a bunch of racist labels, but the most heartening thing was that parents on all sides were horrified. Our community is changing around us and with us, and we are changing as well. Most days we get it right.”

Rural districts, says Massey University demographer Paul Spoonley, have to get it right. “Regional New Zealand is at a crossroads. When you look around territorial authorities, the bulk are seeing population stagnation and some are seeing population decline. The one factor that will change that is migration.”

Growing migration is affecting the whole country. According to Statistics New Zealand, in the year to August 2015, there were 117,900 migrant arrivals (including 26,800 on student visas), a 13% increase on the previous year. But Spoonley adds a note of caution about regional figures. When you have a small population base, he says, any influx has a percentage effect that can distort what is really happening.

Despite measures introduced last year to spread new migrants across the country, including tripling the bonus points for skilled migrants with job offers outside Auckland and doubling the points for entrepreneurs planning to set up businesses in the regions, Auckland remains the major drawcard – the 2013 census recorded that 71% of immigrants from China, the country’s largest source of permanent migrants, had settled in Auckland.

“If we are talking destinations for migrants in New Zealand, Auckland is far ahead of the rest of the field. It is one of most super-diverse cities in the world – 40% of Aucklanders were born overseas – and it is the destination for a wide range of migrant communities.”

Although immigration is undoubtedly boosting populations in the provinces, overseas migrants choosing to work in rural areas tend to come from a small group of source countries – half of Southland’s dairy workers, for example, are Filipino. Auckland, by contrast, experiences what Spoonley calls “deep diversity” – a diversity of language, religion, food – and a contribution to business as well as community growth. “Not just new takeaways, but businesses that are producing things, exporting things and contributing to the economic vitality of the region.”

The Ashburton District Council’s new research and monitoring adviser, Mubashir Mukhtar, is himself an immigrant; he was born in Oman and raised in Pakistan. He says migrants bring new ideas and more economic benefit to a country “because they bring in different experiences”. He points to new sheep- and goat-milk ventures. “There is always a spin-off from innovation.”

But for this to happen in the provinces, says Spoonley, regional centres need to retain immigrants, not just recruit them. “Ashburton and all the other Ashburtons around New Zealand will have to think how they do that. Are there jobs suitable for new immigrants, so they are not simply a temporary labour source but a permanent source that settles into a community? Are there churches and food supplies and community organisations and native speakers that can help those immigrants feel welcome and settle in that community?”

Ashburton Art Gallery manager Shirin Khosraviani is originally from Iran. Photo/Joseph Johnson
Ashburton Art Gallery manager Shirin Khosraviani is originally from Iran. Photo/Joseph Johnson


Ashburton is working on meeting these needs. It leads the migrant settlement programme, set up under the new Canterbury Regional Economic Development Strategy to attract and integrate new migrant workers in the face of shrinking industry and ageing populations in small Canterbury towns.

Each Waitangi Day, four blocks of the town centre are given over to food stalls and performances from different countries in what is known as the Multi Cultural Bite. There are free English language courses for adults and, in a district with little public transport, new initiatives to help migrant women gain their driver’s licences.

In announcing her proposal to take the pressure off Auckland’s overstretched state-housing sector by encouraging prospective tenants to move to the provinces, Social Housing Minister Paula Bennett suggested Ashburton, with “its strong Samoan community”, as a possible destination. The plan has been slated by some local authorities, but McKay welcomes the idea, even though, as he says, there is already a waiting list of 14 for state houses in his district.

“But we have the social capability, our employers struggle to have a selection of people for job vacancies and we have a good supply of rental houses – the market edge has dropped on those.”

But there are challenges: a shortage of housing for larger multi-generational Pasifika families and a lack of subsidised healthcare for migrant workers and their families, which leads to pressure on hospital emergency departments. Rural life can be isolating, particularly for at-home women, and tax-paying migrant families face international-student level tertiary fees.

Although the two meat-processing factories provide prayer rooms – a halal licence requires a facility for prayer – there is still no mosque for the 50 or so Muslims in the district.

A mosque, says Mohamed Diab, chair of the Ashburton Muslim Community, would help Muslims link up with each other. “It could be a community centre, a place for festivals, a place to teach people about Islam so people will understand from us and not from the media.”

Spoonley adds that local attitudes play a big role: “Do people make new immigrants feel welcome in that community?” According to his research, immigrants find New Zealand more welcoming than other countries, “but they always say, ‘We would really like to understand Kiwi culture, we would like to be invited into New Zealanders’ homes to understand them and interact with them.’ They say New Zealanders are quite reluctant to do that.”

Coming from Scotland, with an English husband and school-age children, Louise Glennon, co-ordinator of the Mid-Canterbury Newcomers Network (newcomers being anyone from north of the Rakaia), found settling in Ashburton easy.

“The second day here, I was invited over for a cuppa. It is all you need as a newcomer, that first person to stop and say hi, someone you can call, or ask where the supermarket is.

“But we are white, we speak English, we come from the UK – if we’d come from Africa or South America, it might have been extremely different.”

The Newcomers Network offers monthly settling-in evenings and regular coffee mornings, but Glennon is also keen to talk to local schools about a buddying programme for migrant families.

“So, within the first week of coming to school, they’ll have someone come up and say, hi, I’m so and so, do you want to meet up or here’s my number. It’s just being a friendly face – it doesn’t take any time.”

Sophie-Claire Violette from Mauritius. Photo/Joseph Johnson
Sophie-Claire Violette from Mauritius. Photo/Joseph Johnson


Arriving in Ashburton a year ago, Sophie-Claire Violette doesn’t know how many Mauritians live in Ashburton – “I have a sneaking suspicion I am the only one.”

Initially, she says, she encountered a “bit of cultural prejudice” that encouraged her to stay in her social circle. Those who asked her what she did were surprised she didn’t work in the dairy industry.

“A lot of people move into Ashburton to work in entry-level positions and Ashburton as a community sees the migrant com­munity from this position. But there are people who have postgraduate degrees in psychology and commerce, people who could work at such a higher, more dynamic level for the benefit of Ashburton and its development as a whole.”

Now, with a degree in anthropology and political science, she is using a district council Creative Communities scheme grant for a multimedia project celebrating Ashburton’s cultural diversity. Crossing the Bridge: Intimate Stories of Ashburton’s Migrant Community, which opens in Ashburton on May 21, the UN World Day for Cultural Diversity, will include photographs of 25 Ashburton participants from Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Samoa, Tonga, Ireland, the UK, the Philippines, India, Fiji, Romania, Belgium, Mauritius, Nepal, the Cook Islands and other countries, printed interviews and a short documentary film. Participants will also be given disposable cameras “so they can capture their world from their perspective”.

Her thesis is that “irrespective of where we come from or how far we have come, we all have something to contribute to community, we all have a story worth telling”.

“I’ve talked to people from a range of backgrounds and they have all spoken out about what the community has given them in terms of lifestyle and opportunities and how they all want to give back. They all want to be dynamic members of this community.”

Dig a little bit deeper, she says, and under the “whitewashed landscape” are a lot of people from all over the world working there and getting involved in the community.

“Food and cultural performances and demonstrations are all well and good, but I think it is also saying, ‘This is the day for you guys to show us what your culture is about. Every other day, fit in.’”

Rather than holding one event, she wants people to have the opportunity to experience cultural diversity on a day-to-day basis, “so you can look at your neighbour and see the whole of the neighbour. This is where stories are so important, being able to relate to someone who looks different and really understand not just that this person came from Mauritius or from the Philippines, but to interact on a more personal level of understanding.”

As a woman and as a Creole from Mauritius, she can identify with the experience of being from a minority. “I can relate to this idea of trying to make it, to break the glass ceiling, the cultural stigma and prejudice and being able to find my voice.”

By asking migrants to tell their stories, she hopes these cultural barriers will start to break down.

“We don’t necessarily connect with our public voice when we move. We try to mute it, to fit in. But when I talked to these people, they all had an amazing story, a story they wanted to share. They just hadn’t had that opportunity.”

Violette is optimistic. Ashburton has changed, she says. “It is becoming a cosmopolitan rural town. I think it is going to continue and to gather momentum.”

It will. The population of Ashburton District is expected to grow to 37,700 by 2031. In November, 30 people from Samoa, the Solomon Islands, the Philippines, Russia, the UK, Nepal, Ireland, Hungary, Romania, South Africa and Moldova were granted citizenship, bringing the year’s total of new citizens in the district to 136.

And investment is growing. In October Silver Fern Farms shareholders voted to accept a $261 million offer by Shanghai Maling Aquarius, a subsidiary of China’s state-owned Bright Food Group, for a 50% share in the meat processing company. This year, a group of Chinese are expected to arrive to run a planned $40-million goat-milk plant in Ashburton’s strangely barren business estate. Established by the New Zealand Dairy Collaborative Group (NZDCG) of which Fineboon, China’s largest goat-milk infant-formula brand, is the major shareholder, it will process goat-milk formula for export to China.

“It has been a challenge for individuals,” says McKay, “but the unemployed from Auckland would not come, even with Government initiatives, so we had to go elsewhere. It is the same when looking for new business. We have to open ourselves to the world, not just to Christchurch, because Christchurch isn’t coming. China will come because we are nice and green and have open spaces and there is a mayor who is welcoming.”

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