Veteran nurse who complained of racism: 'It exists, it's rampant'

10:24 am on 5 November 2020

The woman who blew the whistle on a New Plymouth nurse for making comments online about her Māori colleagues, including that they 'sit on their fat asses all day', were thieves, and lazy is urging others to be brave and speak out.

Cherene Neilson-Hornblow (pictured) says racist behaviour by a nurse was not an isolated case.

Cherene Neilson-Hornblow (pictured) says racist behaviour by a nurse was not an isolated case. Photo: RNZ/Te Aniwa Hurihanganui

It was the first case in the country where the the New Zealand Health Practitioners Disciplinary Tribunal cancelled the registration of a health worker for making racist comments online.

Cherene Neilson-Hornblow has been a mental health nurse for 26 years, and immediately reported the nurse's online behaviour to the Nursing Council in May last year.

After a two-day hearing in Taranaki, the case was closed, and the nurse received a penalty of suspension for two years and set conditions, including undertaking training in cultural competency, if she ever wants to work in the sector again.

"Right throughout the whole case she just kept denying, denying, denying, 'I'm not racist, I'm just telling it how it is', just in complete denial," she said.

"All my initial thoughts that she might be suffering from a mental illness, or taking drugs or was drunk at the time went out the door as soon as I saw her. I thought, she's none of that, she's actually a white supremacist.

"How on earth can you change the ideology of a white supremacist? You can't, because she firmly believes in what she believes in."

But it's not an isolated case. Online abuse has recently been highlighted by the head of the Māori Nursing Organisation, Kerri Nuku.

Neilson-Hornblow said she had seen it throughout her entire career.

"Every place I've worked in I've seen racism, it exists, it's rampant. I've been trod on so that leaders can get to the top. It's still happening today. Racism is alive and well, just like Covid-19 really," she said.

She is urging others to speak out.

"I mean, 20 years ago I wouldn't have dared speak out because that's the way I was brought up, is to be in the corner and be the observer, but you must," she said.

"Call it right out for what it is and don't hesitate. You become the whistleblower at the end of the day, and sometimes you look like the 'bad' person because you're telling the trust, but at the end of the day we need to. Otherwise, we are just going to have to continue working in this colonialist place."

Nurses can complain about the conduct of others, including their behaviour online, through the Nursing Council.

Process advanced quickly

Neilson-Hornblow said the process she went through was straightforward and moved quickly.

She is also satisfied with the penalties against the New Plymouth nurse.

"The judge asked me in what way could restorative justice look like, and because I didn't whakapapa to Taranaki, I whakapapa to Ngāpuhi and Ngāti Porou, I thought it wasn't my right to say to the judge I want this, this and this," she said.

"After the hearing had finished, we went out into the room and we worked for hours trying to figure out how restorative justice could be achieved for the iwi, the people she named and shamed, the organisations, and the land she did it on."

As a result, a key finding of the tribunal, which was recorded in the official report, was that the nurse tarnished the mana of not only other nurses, but also mana whenua.

Neilson-Hornblow wanted to challenge New Zealanders to learn about te ao Māori.

"I'd like to challenge every citizen to learn the declaration of independence, to learn Te Tiriti o Waitangi, and to learn about Māori heritage in Aotearoa," she said.

"And if you don't know and if you don't have any Māori leading in your organisation then you need to be looking hard at yourself, and your organisation."

The New Plymouth nurse was stood down for similar offences in 2018, but continued working against the rules of her suspension.

Neilson-Hornblow doesn't believe the nurse will ever work in the sector again, even if she wanted to.

"She's not capable of being able to achieve anything, in terms of following the standards of practice. She found it difficult to follow them last time, and I find it hard to believe she will return."

Neilson-Hornblow said she was thankful for the support of her husband and whānau, and the mana whenua of Taranaki who were present at the hearing.

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