OTTAWA — Two Manitoba senators want the Red Chamber to give clarity about the use of Indigenous symbols, after an emotional exchange over eagle feathers, which ended in an apology.
"I actually cried," Sen. Mary Jane McCallum told the Free Press.
"I think it was just that release of energy, because I was just shaking when I spoke."
On Thursday evening, McCallum explained her opposition to the Trudeau government’s bill to enact a United Nations declaration on Indigenous rights, arguing it lacks teeth and clear definition.
Speaking over Zoom from Winnipeg, the independent senator was clasping an eagle fan, made of feathers.
Inside the Red Chamber, Conservative Sen. Don Plett stood and raised a point of order, asking the speaker if the feathers amounted to a prop, which senators are strictly banned from holding or wearing.
His interjection caused a stir.
"This is a ceremonial object that was given to me as an honour," responded McCallum, who is a Cree residential school survivor.
"I have it with me today because this is who I am, this is what was taken away from me, and I will not give it up again."
At that point, the Senate took its pre-scheduled hour-long dinner break.
Plett withdrew his point afterwards, offering an apology, which McCallum immediately accepted.
"I tried to choose my words, but it was deemed as being insensitive," Plett told the chamber. "I apologize if in any way I offended her, because that was not my intent."
In a Friday interview, Plett said he had tried to ask the Speaker to advise on whether an eagle feather was acceptable, but was told he would have to formally raise a point of order during her speech.
"I was, and I am still, extremely sorry about hurting her feelings," Plett said in an interview.
He noted he had been raising issues around reconciliation, including chiefs demanding more federal support in searching potential residential school burial sites. "Wounds were fresh, which made it doubly bad," he said.
Plett hopes the Speaker will give clear guidance on allowing Indigenous symbols, to avoid any future awkward moments or hurt.
"I know Sen. Plett is not indifferent… you cannot get to people that are indifferent; you can’t build," McCallum said. "He’s just not aware of our history."
McCallum said the Senate is gradually getting better, but it often forces Indigenous senators to warp into European notions of what’s acceptable.
"It’s a colonialistic institution. That has been there forever, and I feel it," she said.
She argued the average Canadian is further ahead than the Senate as an institution, in trying to advance reconciliation and diversity.
McCallum said she was gifted the eagle fan in 2013, upon finishing four years at the Matootoo Lake Medicine Lodge in Manitoba. She uses it to smudge, which clears her mind, particularly ahead of divisive debates.
"It’s a form of prayer to the creator, that what you’re speaking goes out to the people, she said.
Both senators said they’d had hundreds of emails about the incident, and both said they want to let it go.
"We all make mistakes and if it were me, I would want to be forgiven," she said, arguing Plett did right in asking the Speaker to update the rules.
"With compassion, people can really move mountains."