Lynda Gray, author of, ‘First Nations 101,’ will present the 2022 Dhahan Prize keynote at its ceremonies on November 17. But what does an Indigenous advocate have to do with a Punjabi literature prize? It turns out, quite a bit.
Who is Lynda Gray?
Gray served as the Executive Director of the Urban Native Youth Association (UNYA) for 8 years. She currently serves on the National Indigenous Cultural Safety (ICS) Advisory Circle.
She was born in Prince Rupert, B.C. and settled in East Vancouver as a child.
Gray notes that she experienced many social issues as a child due to generations of assimilation efforts by the Canadian government, achieved through The British North American Act and the Indian Act.
“The main goals were to separate Indigenous people from their land and all the things that kept them independent and prosperous so that a new nation could be built without much resistance,” explains Gray.
To give a poignant example, she herself grew up far from her ancestors’ homeland, culture, traditions, language, songs, dances, stories and history.
The effects of residential schools, including poverty, addiction and many other social issues, had already become stereotypes of her community by the time she was born.
It wasn’t until her teens that Gray learned she is part of the Ts’msyen Nation (from the Northwest Coast of B.C.), and of the ‘Gisbutwada,’ (a.k.a. ‘Killerwhale’) Clan.
In university, Gray noticed those around her – whether Indigenous or not – didn’t know much about First Nations people. People were curious, but there was a ‘hole’ of knowledge that not even most First Nations people could fill.
The fact that Indigenous life was a mystery to many was something Gray felt she had to help change. In 2011, she self-published her first book on the topic, and titled it ‘First Nations 101: Tons of Stuff You Need to Know.’
The book became a national bestseller in Canada without any marketing efforts. It sold over 27,000 copies. Shops, galleries, museums, schools and libraries helped her reach diverse audiences. Media outlets, like the Vancouver Sun, iHeart Radio, Miss 604, The Globe and Mail, Stir, City News, The Georgia Straight and others called to interview Gray. Organizations booked her to be a speaker on anti-racism, social issues, how to become a great ally to Indigenous people and more.
Gray introduced an array of topics about Indigenous life and history from an Indigenous voice, which was unique at the time. Subjects included identity, social control, treaties, sexual exploitation, constitutional rights, traditions in courtrooms, traditional medicines, parenting, missing women, food access and everything in between.
In 2022, Gray released a second edition of her book with 16 new chapters, many of which are related to The Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. Due to popular demand, the second edition also includes ways in which individuals can be allies to Indigenous peoples.
“This information can help us all to understand how we arrived where we are today and what Indigenous communities can draw on from their traditional communities, laws, values, beliefs, and ways of life to help (re)build their families, communities, and Nations,” she explains.
“Indigenous people are much more than the stereotypes people may have heard about us. Rather we are a proud, peaceful, and cultural people who are working towards reviving our cultures, languages, and traditions.”-Lynda Gray
The Dhahan Prize founder, Barj Dhahan, knows all too well what Gray speaks of. He himself is a strong advocate for Truth and Reconciliation – a mission that was propelled when he heard racist comments from a cab driver about Indigenous people.
READ THE STORY: How a cabbie’s racist comment inspired a $400,000 scholarship fund at UBC (opens a new tab).
Noting parallels between Canada’s Indigenous people and India’s scheduled caste system
One doesn’t need to look far to find parallels between Canada’s Indigenous history and that of India’s Dalit peoples – the “untouchables” as they are labelled by the caste system.
Although illegal since 1950, the Indian caste system prevails culturally. Dalits are subject to crimes that go unpunished, because they are often covered up by corrupt politicians and police officers.
Women are raped and sold into prostitution, houses are burned down, property is stolen, innocent people are beaten, tortured and sometimes lynched. Despite the passing of India’s Prevention of Atrocities Act in 1989, justice for victims of such crimes is hard to get.
Dalits are a class ‘below’ the Sudras, which are known as labourers. This leaves Dalits to work in the least desired jobs, such as cleaning waste, or even in bonded slavery. Although, efforts are being made towards equity and inclusion through education and employment opportunities. Still, Dalits have a long way to go towards meaningful and equitable integration into mainstream Indian society.
Many believe the caste system is rooted in the ancient division of labour within the Hindu worldview, which still prevails in India and Pakistan.
The British colonists further reinforced the caste system to divide people, so they could rule easily over a large area of today’s India and Pakistan. That rule came with the benefit of extracting resources to enrich British coffers.
The British also fuelled religious and linguistic divisions. For example, in the Punjab region, the British systematically imposed Urdu language upon Punjabi speaking populations and associated Urdu with Islam and Punjabi with Sikhism. This created further divisions and conflicts.
British rule over diverse peoples with rich languages and cultural traditions in the region of Punjab was unfair, to say the least. Even their exit in 1947 led to massacres, displacement and horrific acts in the days around Independence.
Gray’s message to those affected by colonialism: art and storytelling can be a path to healing
Beginning in her twenties, Gray made a concerted effort to begin learning as much as she could about where she came from.
The process of uncovering her roots – both the good and the challenging – was a healing process in itself. It explained the ‘why’ behind the way she grew up, and the things she witnessed in her childhood.
Today, Gray sees art and storytelling as a way to inspire action toward justice, to build friendships across communities, and to heal from multi-generational traumas.
“Cross-cultural learning and sharing is critical to fostering reconciliation.”-Lynda Gray
“Cross-cultural learning and sharing is critical to fostering reconciliation,” she says.
By presenting to a multicultural group of largely Punjabi-Canadians, Gray hopes to do just that.
“Colonization has affected us all, but we have survived it with enough knowledge about our own unique histories, cultures, traditions, and language to lead happy lives…
“All people from around the world have the same hopes and dreams for their families and communities. We may have unique cultures and traditions, but they are all based on similar worldviews,” she says.
Gray will also be in dialogue with students during a Dhahan Prize youth event. She will speak to the power of storytelling as a tool for healing from past injustices at L.A. Matheson Secondary School in Surrey, with grade 11 and 12 students (date TBA).
“Young people will be vital in working towards true reconciliation. They have access to more information about the true history of Canada than previous generations did. They are more likely to learn, incorporate knowledge, and foster meaningful relationships with Indigenous people,” says Lynda. “Encouraging young people to use their voice and talents to foster healing and reconciliation is vital.”