Eagle feathers introduced to Nova Scotia court system for legal affirmations

Indigenous people involved in court matters in Nova Scotia will now have access to eagle feathers for affirmations, or oath swearing.

Ceremony a 'full circle moment' for Mi'kmaw woman who refused to swear on the Bible

The eagle feathers now available at Nova Scotia courts were harvested by Mi'kmaq in New Brunswick. Their cases were hand made in Nova Scotia. (Nic Meloney/CBC)

Indigenous people involved in court matters in Nova Scotia will now have access to eagle feathers for affirmations, or oath swearing.

Members of the Nova Scotia judiciary officially adopted the symbolic items at a ceremony in Halifax Thursday. 

Around 30 feathers, harvested by the Mi'kmaq in their ancestral territory of Mi'kma'ki which includes Nova Scotia, PEI and parts of New Brunswick, were blessed and presented to judiciary staff. Two feathers are being distributed to each of the main courthouses across the province — one for courtroom use and one to be made available at courthouse reception. 

"It's a full circle moment for me," said Charlotte Poulette, who is Mi'kmaw of We'koqm'aq First Nation in Cape Breton. 

Charlotte Poulette, seen here with her mother Margaret, a residential school survivor, refused to swear on a Bible as a witness in a legal matter. (Nic Meloney/CBC)

Poulette was asked to provide a witness statement in a legal matter in 2016. RCMP officers involved in the investigation asked her to swear an oath on the Bible, and Poulette refused. 

Her mother is a survivor of Shubenacadie Indian Residential School and thoughts of the Catholic Church can be painful, she said.

"I got really upset with them because I wanted the eagle feather," she said. 

"I am not swearing on a Bible."

Poulette said that while the RCMP offered her an alternative to provide a sworn statement, having her culture's traditions represented would have helped to ease her distress. 

"It was a really difficult moment in my life," she said.

"I needed [the] creator by my side that day. I was praying for strength and to find the right words ... Now, with this ceremony today, that moment in my life came full circle." 

Thirty-three feathers, harvested by the Mi'kmaq in their ancestral territory of Mi'kma'ki, were blessed and presented to the Nova Scotia Judiciary for use in every main courthouse in the province. (Nic Meloney/CBC)

'A connection to spirit'

Chief PJ Prosper of Paqtnkek First Nation in Nova Scotia led the judiciary ceremony in prayer and provided those in attendance some teachings on the sacredness and symbolism behind the feathers. 

"For a lot of Aboriginal people, it provides a connection to spirit. It provides a connection to their place in the world," he said. 

"When you have the criminal justice system recognizing the connection and the importance of the eagle feather, it makes it all the more relevant for [Indigenous Peoples] to participate in that system." 

'For a lot of Aboriginal people, [the eagle feather] provides a connection to spirit. It provides a connection to their place in the world,' said Chief PJ Prosper of Paqtnkek First Nation. (Nic Meloney/CBC)

Prosper said that the eagle feathers, though a important step forward, are just a small part of what needs to happen in the justice system. 

"There's certainly more to do," he said. "There's a long ways to go in non-Indigenous society for government to address the gaps involved with Aboriginal peoples in the justice system."

"There definitely needs to be a way beyond process and punishment to address the issues we face at a community level."

'We could learn a lot': Chief Justice

"I can tell you this is probably the proudest moment I have," Michael MacDonald, Chief Justice of Nova Scotia, told the Mi'kmaq and judiciary staff at the ceremony.

"I've been involved in the conventional ... colonial justice system for a long time, and let's acknowledge that it has significant problems in criminal law, in family law. It strikes me, friends, that we could learn a lot from our Mi'kmaw friends and their approaches to justice." 

Further to the eagle feather initiative and its required educational components, the Nova Scotia judiciary has been engaging in cultural competency training, led in part by Mi'kmaw officials, and visiting communities to discuss the issues the Mi'kmaq are facing.


Nic Meloney


Nic Meloney is a mixed heritage Wolastoqi video journalist raised on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia/Mi'kma'ki. Email him at or follow him on Twitter @nicmeloney.