Soon-to-be lawyer wins right to wear regalia when she is called to the bar

Photo: Christina Gray with permission

Christina Gray will set a strong precedent when she is called to the bar this week.

In a sea of black barristers' robes at Toronto's Roy Thomson Hall, Gray, a proud member of the Lax Kw'alaams Tsimshian, will be wearing her woollen black and red Tsimshian button blanket and her cedar hat. On her back there will be a hand-sewn killer whale, representing her clan.

The regalia represents her Tsimshian culture, laws, ways of being and history, said Gray.

Gray will be the first in Ontario to wear First Nations regalia instead of the traditional barristers' robes when called to the bar on Tuesday.

In May, an initial request from Gray to the Law Society of Upper Canada to wear her traditional regalia for the ceremony was rejected on the grounds that the clothing worn at the call should be appropriate for court, and that regalia would cover the traditional barristers' robes. Gray was invited to speak to the issue if she had further questions. 

A month later, while watching the closing ceremony in Ottawa for the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's report on the residential school experience, she drafted a formal letter to the society, said Gray.

Along with statements of support from her community, Gray sent the letter on June 5 and after a few meetings, the society honoured her request. 

In her letter to the law society, Gray wrote that her traditional regalia is worn by Tsimshian chiefs during the potlatch gift-giving and exchange ceremony and signifies her community's legal and cultural heritage. She wrote that the survival of the potlatch is a triumph over what Supreme Court Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin called "cultural genocide." 

A potlatch her First Nation held in 2012 was the first in 50 years because of the Canadian government's forced assimilative policies that banned potlatches until 1951, she said. 

"The fact that my tribal house held a potlatch demonstrates that, as Tsimshian, we are part of a continued journey in reclaiming our cultural and spiritual identity," she wrote. "My tribe's continuance of the potlatch and ability to wear the button blanket represents our resilience, ability [to] transcend adversity, and proclaim our identity."

It took a lot of courage, she said, but she made up her mind to wear her Tsimshian regalia.

The Law Society of Upper Canada approved Gray's request on June 16 and stated that the Society is committed to instilling equity and diversity into all its programs, policies and procedures.

"We appreciated the opportunity to have a meaningful dialogue with Christina and learn about her regalia and its relevance to Tsimshian legal and cultural traditions," said Law Society of Upper Canada Treasurer Janet Minor.

Gray said her attendance at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission gave her courage because of the positive energy and strength she felt when speaking to survivors of residential schools. In a written reflection for rabble.ca, Gray said she attended the event to honour her own family and ancestors, who were forced to attend the schools.  

Gray said she drew strongly on support from the Indigenous legal community while attending the University of British Columbia's Peter A. Allard School of Law. She attended the school for their Indigenous Legal Studies program. Through the program she found strength and support, inspiring her to wear her traditional regalia, she said.

The button blanket was hand-sewn by her family, and Gray said that it represents who she is as a person. It illustrates her clan, she said, which is passed down through the matrilineal line.

"I received the right to wear my button blanket from my mother and she received it from her mother," she said.

Gray said she remembers the first time she wore her Tsimshian regalia as part of Tsimshian dance group in Vancouver.

"When I sing and dance with my group it's such a powerful experience to be singing, almost a spiritual experience," she said.

She feels honoured, humbled and proud to be able to wear her Tsimshian regalia at those moments, and when being called to the bar on June 23, she said. 

Miriam Katawazi is a graduate of Carleton University's journalism and human rights program, and former rabble.ca news intern. She has a passion for human rights and social justice in Canada and across the world. Her writing focuses on health, immigration, labour, social policy, education, and human rights beats.

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