Eagle feathers now on hand for oaths at Ottawa courthouse

Indigenous elders and justice workers presented court staff with two eagle feathers for use in legal proceedings during a special ceremony today at the Odawa Native Friendship Centre.

Including indigenous symbols 'validating the importance of our culture, our spirituality,' says elder

Jan Crozier, supervisor of operations at the Ottawa courthouse, receives an eagle feather from Algonquin elder Claudette Commanda. (Waubgeshig Rice, CBC News)

People testifying at the Ottawa courthouse will now have the option of swearing an oath with their hand on an eagle feather to affirm they're telling the truth.

Indigenous elders and justice workers presented court staff with two eagle feathers for use in legal proceedings during a special ceremony today at the Odawa Native Friendship Centre.

Greg Meekis, Odawa's aboriginal community justice coordinator, first reached out to court staff last summer when he heard of an indigenous client who requested to swear on a feather instead of a bible before testifying, only to be told there was none.

Two eagle feathers (on the red folders) were presented to Ottawa courthouse staff in a special ceremony at the Odawa Native Friendship Centre. (Waubgeshig Rice, CBC News)
"I was gifted with feathers during the course of my life as well," said Meekis. "I've had these two, and following the teachings that we are just carriers of these sacred items, the keepers, until such time that there's an opportunity to pass them on, I saw this opportunity to pass these two eagle feathers on to the courthouse. That way they'll be available to our people when the time comes."

The eagle is a significant spiritual figure in many indigenous cultures, and eagle feathers are considered sacred items that are used in ceremonies.

In recent years, courts across Ontario have introduced them to make the legal process more inclusive and culturally relevant to indigenous people.

"I think it's gonna be based on trust," added Meekis. "I think that's the big thing, where the court is willing to entrust some of our culture, in terms of their process in the system. I think that will be a good start. And any person that would request that feather, we can assume that they carry those teachings."

'It's validating the importance of our culture'

Algonquin elder and lawyer Claudette Commanda handed over the feathers to courthouse representatives following traditional teachings on their significance.

Odawa's aboriginal community justice coordinator Greg Meekis (blue shirt) led the special ceremony. (Waubgeshig Rice, CBC News)
"It's validating the importance of our culture, our spirituality," said Commanda, after the ceremony. "It's also validating or acknowledging that we also had our own processes of reconciliation, our processes of healing. And for me, I think it's important that our aboriginal clients have access to reconciliation elements, to elements of healing, but also to our own indigenous legal traditions."

Both Meekis and Commanda have offered to liaise with courthouse staff going forward on how to keep and care for the feathers.

Commanda feels encouraged by what she calls a "tremendous" move by local justice officials and the indigenous community.

"This is a beginning, and the door's open," said Commanda. "Look at the justice system that's opening a door to provide room and space for our ancestral knowledge."