Christina Gray: Why I wore regalia to my call to the bar

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Photo: Christina Gray

The last few days were a whirlwind. Never did I expect that I would be an ambassador for my culture, but I am quite humbled that I was able to share my culture with Canada when I was called to the bar at Roy Thompson Hall in Toronto on June 23, 2015.

It was proudest moment of my life. I got to sit amongst my peers, cross the stage and receive the right to practice law in Ontario. I am equally proud that I won the right to wear my Tsimshian button blanket and cedar bark hat, and from the Law Society of Upper Canada.

This all started a few months ago at the end of April when I was in Prince Rupert in Northern British Columbia. My (House of) Waap Liyaa'mlaxha (Leonard Alexcee) in the Ginaxangiik Tribe, part of the Gispewada (killer whale) clan had just held a potlatch in our community of Lax Kw'alaams. At the potlatch and other important ceremonial events like it, the chiefs, dignitaries, guests, and hosts wear their clan on their regalia to signify to others to whom they belong.

The button blanket truly signifies to others our identity. It represents our inherited rights, laws, culture, family, and customs. I was honoured to see our chiefs and elders wear their regalia and speak our Sm'alygax language at our potlatch. While I was in Lax Kw'alaams I remember looking at the black and white photos of the children sitting in a classroom, and some of those kids are now elders and helping my family before the potlatch. They then arrived at the potlatch wearing their regalia and it dawned on me. Never before have I felt stronger in my identity than I did in that moment because I know who I am and to whom I belong.

Carried on the good energy of having just held a potlatch, when I received word I was being called to the bar in Ontario, I emailed the Law Society of Upper Canada and asked if I could wear my Tsimshian regalia. I didn't think twice about asking because I wore my regalia to my convocation at UBC Law. In that circumstance, UBC had encouraged to wear my regalia to convocation, but little did I know what was about to ensue in the next few months.

A few weeks later I received a response from the Law Society and I was informed that it was the tradition to wear the barrister robes but I could hold an eagle feather. I needed time to process and reflect on my next steps.

It wasn’t until attending the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Closing ceremonies in Ottawa that I felt an urgent need to respond. At the TRC, I witnessed survivors singing, dancing, and speaking their own languages. I experienced again the strong feeling of pride, unity, and strength that I felt when my family hosted our potlatch.

While watching the TRC closing, I wrote my formal letter to the Law Society asking for permission to wear my regalia. I rallied the support from my community, including the lawyer who supervised my work -- Emily Hill, Aboriginal Legal Services of Toronto, and my band of Lax Kw'alaams, who wrote letters to the Law Society on my behalf. Prior to doing this, I talked to my House Chief, who gave me his support, love, and advised that I should talk to Garry Reece, our tribal and band chief of Lax Kw'alaams.

On the morning of sending my letter to the Law Society, I heard the deeply tragic news that my dear friend Alana Madill and her partner Jerry Collins had died in a car crash in France. Their newborn daughter had survived, but lay in critical condition. I was overcome with grief for my friend and her family, but had to see my appeal through. I was writing emails and strategizing about my next steps while tears streamed down my face thinking of my friend and her family.

Alana had helped to instill an inner strength in me while we were interns for a Mayan Widows Association in Guatemala. While we were interns, we experienced a tragedy together: our two Mayan friends and colleagues were murdered. At that time, I wanted to go home and felt deeply insecure about my personal safety. Alana told me: "No, the Mayans here have it way harder. As Canadians, we are the ones that are safe." She said we had to see our work there through together. It was at that point in time that I truly understood the importance of seeing something through to the end no matter how difficult the circumstance may be.

In this case too, Alana shared her strength with me to see the journey through. As I petitioned to wear my regalia to my call to the bar, I have been thinking of our next generation and of Alana's daughter, who is now recovering. I have hope that the next generation will live in a world that will be more accepting of cultural differences than it was for me or generations past.

Christina Gray is a lawyer in Toronto. She is a  proud member of Lax Kw'alaams First Nation in Northern British Columbia, and is also Dene from Lutselk’e, and Metis from the Northwest Territories. She holds degrees in both Art History and Law from UBC. Follow her on twitter @stinagray_


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