Newshub Nation Backstory: Te Pāti Māori co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer shares her storied past

How well do we really know our politicians and the personal values and experiences they bring to decisions that affect us all?

Newshub Nation's Backstory series goes behind the scenes into our political leaders' lives and childhood photo albums.

This week, Te Pāti Māori co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer shares the story of her upbringing with an Irish mother and Māori father, being an independent mother at 19 and the grandchild affectionately named mini-Debbie. 

Pātea is where she "is the most grounded", she said.

The small Taranaki town is where she was born and raised, and also where she will "die and go back to".

Ngarewa-Packer took Newshub Nation to visit her parents, joking she was "an absolute idyllic child just like I am as an adult".

She said when she was growing up she "didn't remember feeling anything other than real love and being treated like a princess".

Ngarewa-Packer was not raised with a strong knowledge of her whakapapa. 

"I wasn't raised thinking we were any different," she said. 

"Every now and then I'd hear someone call us Tehrainian rather than Māori.

"It was quite clear that my genetic make-up was different to mum's family's but I just didn't really take notice of that."

It was only once she attended boarding school at New Plymouth Girls' High School she began to notice inequalities, like how if you were to study te reo it would be in a resource room instead of a classroom.   

"The stereotyping came to me as I left the bosom of this safety, I just thought everybody spoke two languages in their homes," she said. "But actually, this harmonisation, the way that we were bought up in our community, was very rare."

Ngarewa-Packer described her parents as shining examples of that attitude. 

"They were always community supporters, they were adult tertiary learners and so from a very young age we were taught to enjoy learning."

At 46, her mother had an aneurysm which created a stroke, leading to her having to give up her career. 

"They told us that mum would be a vegetable actually and that she would never walk or talk," Ngarewa-Packer said. "God she proved them wrong.

"She's taught us the art of pushing back and not letting people tell you what you can or cannot do, and if they tell you you can't do something, prove them bloody wrong."

Ngarewa-Packer's father said his wife is "the strength in the family, I'm only just a provider".

At 19, Ngarewa-Packer became pregnant with her eldest daughter Jamie. 

"Typical, in a young relationship - things didn't go well," she said. 

"When I'd lived such a sheltered protected life, it was really humbling experience to have to be an independent mum."

She recalled having to work three jobs and not being able to afford a car, resorting to biking Jamie to Kohanga, preschool. 

Ngarewa-Packer said that experience "formed a lot of my views on different times that we need to have support". 

"We need to have empathy for things not going to plan."

Since then, her family has grown and grown, and she now has nine mokopuna, grandchildren. 

Out of the nine, only one is a wahine, and she has been nicknamed mini-Debbie.

Ngarewa-Packer joked this "is great for her future".

Now an MP, Ngarewa-Packer believes there's a "small cohort of our society who are really scared that as Māori culture gets stronger, and we resume or claim our role back under Te Tiriti, that they're going to lose something, or we're going to take something from them".

"That fear is manifesting."

Ngarewa-Packer said her parents, an Irish mother and Māori father, have shown her "how their partnership has grown.

"They've negotiated things for our upbringing and all our lives and it's always been about a unity of strength.

"There's been a sad neglect of our own nationhood and how it is that we should be looking after each other."

Watch the full video for more. 

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