Vancouver’s bright lights challenge the status quo
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Executive director, Urban Native Youth Association
One sunlit Sunday afternoon has Lynda Gray tapping away for two hours at her laptop in a neighbourhood café in the 2600 block of East Vancouver’s Hastings Street. She’s working on her first book.
“It’s called First Nations 101,” Gray told the Georgia Straight. “It’s an educational resource so that people understand the issues and the context that brought Native people to where we are today. If I educate myself, I become empowered. If I also educate you and other people, it helps to strengthen the Native community, because you’ll have a better understanding of us. It’s empowering both ways.”
Gray, executive director of the Urban Native Youth Association, says she intends to discuss exactly 101 issues in her book. These will touch on matters ranging from economic development to child welfare, the residential-school system, and youth concerns. These are the same issues in which the Tsimshian Nation mother of two grown children has immersed herself as an activist and community worker for more than a decade.
She oversaw efforts from 2002 to 2005 to revitalize the former St. Michael’s Residential School facility in Alert Bay into a community and arts centre.
“People think that we’re born to be alcoholics or live on welfare or can’t take care of our children—those are just symptoms of what happened,” the UBC–educated Gray said about the stereotypes of aboriginal people that reflect some of the tragic effects of the residential schools.
Approximately 140 such institutions operated from the 1840s on in Western and Northern Canada, with the objective of assimilating Native children. The last one closed as recently as 1996.
Gray said she doesn’t know whether or not her late mother ever went to one of these schools. But she remembers hearing “occasionally from my mother, if she was drinking”¦about all of the racism that happened to her when she was young, her struggles as a Native person”.
When Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized on June 11 this year in the House of Commons to survivors and the families of those who attended residential schools, Gray was reminded about the stalled project to put up a Native youth centre in Vancouver.
She said that UNYA hasn’t received any commitment from the federal and provincial governments to fund such a centre, which will serve as a hub for various programs, ranging from childcare to sports and career development. She believes this is indicative of the lack of government commitment to help First Nations people.
“The last election, we barely heard anything about First Nations issues,” Gray said during the interview on September 7, the day Harper triggered a fall election. “They’ll [federal politicians] keep talking about economic development”¦but Native people aren’t on that gravy train that’s going by because they’re not providing meaningful opportunities for our youth.”
Aside from education and employment, aboriginal youths also have to deal with racial profiling by the police, according to Gray, a former director with the Vancouver Aboriginal Community Policing Centre. She remains an adviser to the VACPC, which is working to improve relations between the police and Native youths.
The recognition of old aboriginal values is an important issue for Gray. In April this year, she cochaired the first national aboriginal gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer, and two-spirit summit.
“We called that conference We Are All One because it’s a reminder to members of our community that for our ancestors, everybody had a place in the community,” Gray said. “Everybody was thought to have gifts, and those gifts were used to strengthen the community.”
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