Eagle feathers ‘an implement of justice in Manitoba’

An Indigenous symbol of truth is now an official way to testify in Manitoba's courts, as the justice system continues to grapple with its role in reconciliation.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 26/09/2019 (1099 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

An Indigenous symbol of truth is now an official way to testify in Manitoba’s courts, as the justice system continues to grapple with its role in reconciliation.

Manitobans can testify by holding an eagle feather, rather than swearing on the Bible or simply stating their promise to tell the truth in court. The eagle feather has already been accepted in some court trials for several months, but with the Supreme Court of Canada’s visit casting a national spotlight on Manitoba courts this week, a joint session between the provincial court and the Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench was called Thursday to officially recognize it.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Frankie Snider, Director of Indigenous Relations at Manitoba Justice, handles the sacred eagle feathers during a presentation to the courts of The Law Courts building.

Forty-five eagle feathers were blessed and gifted to Manitoba courts during a sunrise smudging ceremony at The Forks Thursday morning, and a courthouse presentation Thursday afternoon brought together all nine visiting Supreme Court justices and every sitting judge in Winnipeg. Indigenous drummers were welcomed for a first-of-its-kind courtroom ceremony in which chief judges promised their work isn’t done when it comes to working with Indigenous people and making room for culturally appropriate practices.

Barry French, a longtime Indigenous advocate and one of the individuals who gifted eagle feathers to the court, emphasized the progress the move represents in Manitoba’s court process.

“In our culture, justice is swift, but it’s consensual. It’s something built by consensus, we talk about it,” he said. “Justice today is slow and ponderous.”

“In the past, the courts typically asked that we walk behind them, never to lead them or to walk beside them. I think that today, the whole community is going to be walking beside the court on its journey towards justice,” French added.

“We were asked to walk beside, and we accept,” he said, to a round of applause.

John Woods / The Canadian Press Supreme Court Chief Justice Richard Wagner, right, and the other Supreme Court judges and Manitoba court officials at the Manitoba Law Courts during the presentation ceremony Thursday.

Consultations to allow eagle feathers in court began two years ago. They will be used in all court locations across the province when witnesses testify and give evidence. In Indigenous cultures, because of the eagle’s ability to fly to great heights, “in proximity to heavens,” its feathers are believed to be a “messenger of meaning,” from our maker, said elder Ed Azure.

Eagle feathers are traditionally used in headdresses and given as adornments to award individuals for their bravery. More recently, Azure said, they’ve been used in healing circles to signal that someone is speaking the truth. “And now it’s an implement of justice in Manitoba,” he said.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS The inclusion of the eagle feather is a step "to creating a more inclusive and relevant" justice system, Provincial Court Chief Judge Margaret Wiebe said.

The inclusion of the eagle feather is a step “to creating a more inclusive and relevant” justice system, Provincial Court Chief Judge Margaret Wiebe said.

“We hope it is understood that the courts are committed to reconciliation and the court acknowledges its responsibility to find a meaningful way to include Indigenous people in the court system and to build their confidence in the administration of justice.

Courts across the country are still dealing with how they can work on reconciliation while upholding the law, Court of Queen’s Bench Chief Justice Glenn Joyal said.

“In that sense, the court may be an imperfect instrument of reconciliation, however, as limited as we may be, we have no choice but to accept the moral challenge and the legal responsibility of reconciliation.”

katie.may@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @thatkatiemay

Katie May

Katie May
Reporter

Katie May is a general-assignment reporter for the Free Press.

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