OBITUARY: Mary Baker was boarding a flight from the United States to Aotearoa in 1981 when she found herself on the same plane as the Springbok rugby team.
She had been heavily involved in anti-tour protests before visiting one of her daughters in Canada and staged a spontaneous protest at the Los Angeles airport.
Her daughter, Maureen Baker, who was traveling with her, said she remembered the ‘absolute shock horror’ when she realized the logo on the team’s blazer was a springbok – not a kangaroo like she initially thought so.
“Mom was devastated and went to them straight away and told them things about bringing so much shame to our country.”
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Despite multiple warnings from flight attendants, Baker ran down the aisles as the crew ate breakfast, waving a sick bag she had turned into a sign of protest reading “SHAME”.
Maureen Baker said her mother was “pretty much the only person on the plane ready to get up”.
It wasn’t the last time Mary Baker protested against social injustice. She was arrested seven times on the Springbok tour and made headlines The press as President of Coalition Against the Tour.
“She was always there for those who were less advantaged…and did stuff for people you weren’t even aware of.”
Baker was born to parents Alfred Edward Gason and Lilian Frances on 8 November 1930 at Waikari Hospital, North Canterbury.
She grew up in Hawarden and was the third of six siblings. In a 1996 interview, she recalled having only potatoes and salt on the table for dinner in the mid-1930s.
When Baker was 14, the family moved to Rangiora where their social life was closely tied to the Catholic Church. She went to Rangiora District High School and thrived in sports.
Baker met her husband in 1948 at a Saturday night dance, and the couple were married five years later.
They had six daughters, adopted two boys and had two adopted children who lived with them “for years”, said Maureen Baker.
Pauline McKay, a staunch critic of the 1981 Springbok tour of New Zealand, was national chairperson of the protest group Halt All Racist Tours.
“I think my parents decided it wasn’t pretty for a boy to pass through them.”
His mother was part of “all the committees” for the various sports practiced by her children. A girl became world champion in rowing, and another world champion in triathlete.
In 1973, Mary Baker began working with the Council of Organizations for Relief Service Overseas, which sparked her interest in social justice issues.
The anti-apartheid movement was “getting quite big” and she was elected chair of the Coalition Against the Tour, responsible for educating the public about the problem of racial segregation in South Africa.
On August 15, 1981 – the day of the Springboks’ first Test match against the All Blacks – Baker made headlines. The press. Four days earlier, 126 people were arrested during a protest that blocked the intersection of Hereford, Colombo and High streets in central Christchurch for an hour.
In an article written by Baker, she recalled waking up on August 15 with an “overwhelming sense that it could be the most violent and awesome day in Christchurch’s history”.
The demonstrators, who were trying to stop the match, clashed violently with the police. Baker was “dragged by two riot police” and saw “so many young protesters covered in blood and so badly beaten,” she wrote.
The match went ahead, much to her disappointment, but she was “proud to be associated with so many thousands of people standing up for the rights of others”.
She demonstrated twice a week during the tour and was arrested seven times.
After the tour ended, all charges against her were cleared.
“[Mum was] so brave, so brave… she was a peaceful protester,” Maureen Baker said.
After the tour, Mary Baker became increasingly aware of domestic issues, particularly racism and unemployment.
A Tri-Nation Conference at Rehua Marae in 1980 became the setting for the Catholic Commission’s commitment to honor Te Tiriti o Waitangi and begin to understand systemic racism and its impact on Indigenous peoples.
In a 2004 interview from his Sumner home, Baker said, “What hurts me the most is racism.
“You will never have peace without justice.”
She then lived in Shirley where she helped women who were poor or in need of help as single mothers. Maureen Baker remembers children often knocking on their doors asking her mother for food stamps to take home.
“She was always there for those less advantaged.”
Although she was heavily involved in the Catholic Church, she indicated in her 1996 interview that she did not believe at all that she was responsible for her active involvement in social justice issues.
“Mary now realizes that women should not adopt this male model of church, because it is this same model that has caused their oppression,” the article reads.
Baker continued to participate in social justice movements, including supporting Aotearoa’s nuclear-free stance and protesting the domes at the Waihopai Valley spy base in rural Marlborough.
When electricity prices rose in Christchurch, the family spent a month using candles for light as Baker protested by paying their electricity bill, Maureen Baker said.
Mary Baker’s health declined after a stroke in the early 1980s.
Before moving to a nursing home, she hosted a wine social at her Sumner home on Friday nights for single women she met while walking her dog.
Even at her nursing home, Maureen Baker said her mother turned the two-minute walk down the hall into a 30-minute ride “because she had to knock on everyone’s door, see how they were doing and talk to all caregivers”.
“She was so respected for the way she carried herself and for her absolute belief in what was right.
“Where there was no tie, she was willing to do [what it took] …to try to improve the lives of the people she came into contact with.
Baker died March 13, 2022, and is survived by her eight children, 23 grandchildren, and 11 great-grandchildren.