WAHINE TOA: Jackie Colliar

With Jackie where the Waipa and Waikato rivers meet Photo credit: U.S. Dept of State.

The latest Wahine Toa post by By Nancy Gilbert, wife of U.S. Ambassador Mark Gilbert.

Wahine Toa, Jackie Colliar.
Wahine Toa, Jackie Colliar.

On the riverbank where the Waipa and Waikato rivers meet in Ngaruawahia, I met our next Wahine Toa, Jackie Colliar.  She represents a rare but growing group in New Zealand –female Māori engineers.  As an Environmental Engineer at the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA) coupled with her volunteer work on Te Kauhanganui Inc and a number of Māori Land Trusts and not-for profit organizations, Jackie continues her life-long dedication to promoting sustainable and ethical change in local government policy, tribal and environmental works, and full equality for Māori.

Sustainability is a core philosophy of Te Ao Māori, and at a young age, Jackie chose engineering as a conduit towards self-sufficiency for herself and a way to promote her Māori beliefs, including conservation and sustainability.  “I chose engineering because I wanted to make a positive and tangible contribution to society, our waterways and lands, and our world,” she said. She sees environmental engineering and working within the water industry as an important mechanism to restore and protect customary water practices.    

Jackie lived a nomadic-style childhood, following her father’s career to Samoa and throughout New Zealand. Spending the majority of her formative years in Tokoroa, she attended Tokoroa High School where she excelled academically. She settled in Christchurch to complete an honors degree in Natural Resource Engineering with a scholarship from her iwi, Waikato Tainui. The receipt of the school funds sparked a deeper commitment to give back to her marae and iwi after her graduation. As an Honors Program graduate from the University of Canterbury, she was recruited by Opus, an international consultancy, working on flood mitigation, wastewater infrastructure and water management projects.

When she began on this path, there were few role models for her to follow. She overcame all challenges as she grew into a leader. “For a long time, I was the only woman, and only Māori engineer specializing in water management. There was a lot of prejudice in those early years and I always had to prove myself which is not unusual for females in the industry.” Mentored by some of NZs leading environmental engineers she learned to break down barriers for future generations. “I have noticed more Māori women at all levels of the water industry which is fantastic, but we still need more,” she said.

With Jackie where the Waipa and Waikato rivers meet Photo credit: U.S. Department of State
With Jackie where the Waipa and Waikato rivers meet Photo credit: U.S. Department of State.

Challenging industry barriers and offering unconventional approaches to engagement with Māori led to her appointment as Chair of the Māori Business Professional Interest Group within Opus, one of the first of its kind. “Nowadays, many organizations value and adopt tikanga Māori and matauranga (wisdom) because it creates tangible outcomes for everyone” she added. Her passion to deliver robust, reliable and sustainable infrastructure for local communities has seen her win numerous awards for projects like the three waters infrastructure in highly prized locations, including the Coromandel Peninsula.

Her current undertakings with Maori communities includes researching the resilience of Marae and Rural wastewater infrastructure across New Zealand, as well as creating a pathway program for knowledge exchange about climate change induced coastal risks and adaptation.

The Turangawaewae Regatta is held every year on the Waikato River. Photo credit: U.S. Department of State.
The Turangawaewae Regatta is held every year on the Waikato River. Photo credit: U.S. Department of State.
A highlight of the regatta is the salute by some of the oldest waka taua (war canoes) . Photo credit U.S. Department of State.
A highlight of the regatta is the salute by some of the oldest waka taua (war canoes) . Photo credit U.S. Department of State.

In 2011, Jackie merged her engineering skills, RMA and water policy knowledge and experience with her tribal work when seconded to Waikato Tainui. She worked in the River Settlement team to produce the Environmental Plan – Tai Tumu Tai Pari Tai Ao, managing the overall project as well as leading the technical and engagement components. The project team consulted with both iwi members and external stakeholders including council and government agencies.  The engagement process strengthened the tribe’s internal and external relationships, and at the same time promoted the plan. The plan aims to increase WaikatoTainui participation in resource and environmental management, and provide high-level guidance and policies with respect to freshwater, wetlands land, fisheries, air, coastal environment, land use, infrastructure, electricity generation, and recreation and tourism. Tai Tumu Tai Pari Tai Ao was recognized by the NZ Planning Institute receiving the 2015 Best Practice Award for Excellence in Strategic Planning and Guidance.

A proud mother of a one year old son, she admits motherhood has had a profound effect on her future outlook. Actively involved in her marae and serving her 13th year on Te Kauhanganui Inc., she asks herself daily “how is the economic success of the tribe translating to daily improvements for iwi members? My key focus is to contribute to improving governance and environmental management for our people.” This effort to enhance health and social well-being of iwi members is a theme that echoes across all our Wahine Toa.