'The spirit of reconciliation': Albertans in court can now swear on an eagle feather

People testifying in Alberta courthouses now have the option of swearing oath on an eagle feather after formal ceremonies held Friday in Edmonton and Calgary.

"I think it makes a difference because it symbolizes the spirit of reconciliation," said Catherine Fraser, Chief Justice of Alberta, at the Edmonton ceremony held at city hall. 

The practice was introduced in Lethbridge last year and in Wetaskiwin last month. After Friday, 122 eagle feathers will be distributed to all courthouses in the province. 

Hugo Levesque/CBC

"Different religions and different cultures have different ways of binding one's conscience when you take an oath, so this is reflective of our multicultural approach in Canada, toward the delivery of justice and what it takes for people to feel comfortable — that there is a fair and equal justice system," Fraser said.  

'Shouldn't have taken us this long'

Wilton Littlechild, grand chief of Treaty No. 6, said he pushed to swear on an eagle feather when he was called to the bar in 1977.

"I used an eagle feather, I had a pipe and also an honour song when I was sworn in," Littlechild said.

"It was a totally new process, but [the judge] welcomed it. "The Bible was there as well, but for me, it was more meaningful to try and use my own teachings and culture." 

Hugo Levesque/CBC

"It shouldn't have taken us this long to get here, although I'm very thankful that we're here today because it's going to be a new opening for justice in Alberta," Littlechild said.  

Ivan Ladouceur, an Indigenous provincial court judge, teared up while speaking at the ceremony. He said the ability to swear on an eagle feather marks a small step toward reconciliation. 

"I see the pain and suffering of Indigenous people every day — my people. I feel that because I'm one, I'm a part of the system," Ladouceur said. 

"I'm very proud and happy that this is happening." 

Representing truth and honesty 

Littlechild said there's a teaching associated with using the feather. 

"When you're offered a feather, you're accepting the responsibility to tell the truth and to be honest. And if you can't, you shouldn't take the feather, you should give it to the next person," he said. 

Peggy Lam/CBC

Ladouceur said the eagle represents many other virtues, such as compassion, humility, strength and the balance of life. 

"To us as Indigenous people, that really binds our sacredness, our truth to the creator," he said.

"It has that very calming feeling to the people — a feeling of being respected and being in a trustworthy place and they feel at home. They're not just a number in court."