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Law student Christina Gray petitioned the Law Society of Upper Canada to allow her to wear her Tsmishian button and cedar hat.

Michelle Siu/The Globe and Mail

It won't be hard to spot the trailblazer when this year's law students are called to the bar in Ontario on Tuesday.

Among the hundreds of black robes at Toronto's Roy Thomson Hall, Christina Gray will be wearing a Tsimshian button blanket and cedar hat, her tribute to the First Nations community that helped her reach that stage. It is the first time that the traditional barristers' robes worn at graduation will be replaced with the ceremonial clothing of another legal tradition.

"It sends a message to aboriginal law students and graduates that they are not only welcomed, but that they have unique experiences and traditions and they don't have to leave that at the door," said Emily Hill, senior staff lawyer at Aboriginal Legal Services of Toronto. Ms. Hill was Ms. Gray's articling principal and supported her petition to wear the regalia.

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The Law Society allows religious and cultural symbols to be worn along with the black barrister's robes, such as hijabs, turbans and eagle feathers. At first, however, Ms. Gray was told she would be able to wear the ceremonial dress only after the call to the bar.

She decided to ask to wear the regalia during the ceremony after attending the release this month of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's report on the legacy of the residential school experience.

"It was such a powerful experience for me to be around other people like myself," said Ms. Gray, who is from the Lax Kw'alaams First Nation, a Tsimshian village in Northern British Columbia. "When I wear my blanket, I feel the strength of my community and ancestors with me, even though they may not be there physically."

In a letter to the law society, Ms. Gray explained that the clothing is worn by Tsimshian chiefs during the potlatch gift-giving and exchange ceremony and signifies her community's legal and cultural heritage. The survival of the potlach is a triumph over what Supreme Court Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin has termed "cultural genocide," she wrote in her letter.

Ms. Gray is the daughter of a residential school survivor. Her father and his siblings were sent to residential school: Her father did not testify during the commission's years of gathering evidence from former students, but attended its hearings in Vancouver.

"It is incredible that he did survive, so many people did not, so many physically died in the schools. Others were affected for their entire lives, like I was," she said.

Ms. Gray grew up in Vancouver, with her mother and her aunt. They lived in a First Nations co-op in the city's southeast. She says the connection she felt with her culture sustained her from childhood.

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"I never felt like I was disconnected, I had my First Nations community around me."

She attended the University of British Columbia's Peter A. Allard School of Law because the university introduced an indigenous law program in 1975. It has also the largest number of aboriginal students of all Canadian law schools.

Still, Ms. Gray said that "every step of the way (in law school) was difficult. The competitive nature of law school, living away from home, studying for the bar exam. But reading about aboriginal law was such a pleasure, and talking to other First Nations students."

Eventually, she wants to practise in the area of aboriginal land and title. With the Tsilhqot'in decision from the Supreme Court last year affirming aboriginal title to land, there is renewed energy to reconcile native and Western law.

"This is an example of how we have tried to build bridges to aboriginal law and students," said Janet Minor, the Law Society's treasurer. Another student being called to the bar on Tuesday will be wearing a Métis sash, she added.

Ms. Hill, at Aboriginal Legal Services of Toronto, said the decision to recognize native legal protocols during the call to the bar sends a signal to the entire profession.

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"We see black robes as neutral and, of course, they are not; they're colonial, they come from Britain. This is saying you can have both that tradition and aboriginal tradition."

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