SCC Historical Visit: Part #1 – Manitoba Courts Adopt Indigenous Tradition in a Week of Memorable “Firsts”

by Alissa Schacter
Equity Officer and Policy Counsel, The Law Society of Manitoba

The last week of September marked a couple of notable “firsts” for Manitoba’s legal community. The Supreme Court of Canada sat in Winnipeg, marking the first time it has ever sat outside of Ottawa in its 145 year history. In another milestone, Manitobans can now testify in court by holding an eagle feather to signify the truthfulness of their testimony rather than swearing on a Bible or affirming their promise to tell the truth.

On September 26, forty-five eagle feathers were blessed in a sunrise smudging ceremony at Oodena Circle at the Forks and then presented to a joint sitting of the Manitoba Court of Queen’s Bench and Provincial Court in the afternoon. The afternoon ceremony was attended by Indigenous elders, the Supreme Court judges and numerous judges from Manitoba’s Court of Appeal, Court of Queen’s Bench, and Provincial Court, Masters and Judicial Justices of the Peace, as well as members of the RCMP. Some of the attendees danced in their seats to the powerful sounds of Indigenous drumming and singing, which lent the court proceeding a ceremonial air. Elder Ed Azure shared a teaching about the significance of the eagle feather in Indigenous culture: since eagles are able to fly to great heights, close to the heavens, they are regarded as a “messenger from our maker” and their feathers represent honour, achievement, bravery, truth, clarity and service to others. Chief Justice Glenn Joyal and Chief Judge Margaret Wiebe both addressed the court and talked about this (incorporating the eagle feather into court proceedings) as one step on the court’s journey toward reconciliation.

Following the ceremony, the Law Society sponsored a reception in the Great Library and a tribute was made to a special guest in attendance, Marion (Ironquill) Meadmore, the first Indigenous woman to graduate from law school in Canada. She graduated from the University of Manitoba’s Faculty of Law in 1977.

It was a moving ceremony that marked the ground breaking step of incorporating an Indigenous tradition into Manitoba’s justice system.

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