Justice O’Bonsawin’s legacy: A transfer of knowledge and an eagle feather

By Amanda Jerome

Law360 Canada (June 21, 2023, 9:42 AM EDT) -- Last year, a historic appointment was made to the Supreme Court of Canada when Justice Michelle O’Bonsawin became the first Indigenous judge to sit on the country’s highest court. While her ascension to the bench was much celebrated, another lesser known first was happening at the court. Justice O’Bonsawin was sworn in on an eagle feather, the first one to be gifted to a Supreme Court judge for this purpose.

The feather is named Jacqueline and Justice O’Bonsawin hopes that she will become part of the legacy the judge leaves behind.

In an exclusive interview, Justice O’Bonsawin told Law360 Canada about the honour of receiving this sacred gift and the feather’s journey to the Supreme Court.

It all started with a request to Chief Justice Richard Wagner.

 Justice O’Bonsawin with Chief Justice Wagner

Justice O’Bonsawin with Chief Justice Wagner

“I had been sworn in on an eagle feather at my last court and, for me, it was really important for that to happen again,” Justice O’Bonsawin explained, noting the rarity of the feathers as eagles are a protected species in Canada.  

However, the Supreme Court didn’t have a feather, so Justice O’Bonsawin turned to Gilbert Whiteduck, a well-respected elder of the Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg nation, for help. She reached out to him to see if “there was a possibility of getting an eagle feather to be used in our court.”

The Supreme Court worked with Whiteduck to “ensure that the eagle feather would be available, and he gifted it to me and to the court,” she explained.

Whiteduck, an elder in residence for the Civil Law Section at the University of Ottawa, had met Justice O’Bonsawin through his work at the university and thought it was important she be gifted an eagle feather. He conferred with elders from Atikamekw, a First Nation in Quebec, who also agreed to gift the judge an eagle wing.

An eagle feather named Jacqueline, in honour of Justice O'Bonsawin's  grandmother, as well an eagle wing, were gifted to the new Supreme Court judge.

An eagle feather named Jacqueline, in honour of Justice O'Bonsawin's grandmother, as well an eagle wing, were gifted to the new Supreme Court judge.

A master beader was found to create the bead-work at the base of the wing, while the feather she used for her swearing in was gifted from Whiteduck’s own collection.

“Eagle feathers are not something that you buy. Obviously, you don't go shoot an eagle,” he said, noting that a feather is something you “receive.”

“My teachings have been you never go looking for them,” he added, noting that his handful of eagle feathers have been gifted to him throughout his life.

The gifting of an eagle feather does not confer ownership as the receiver then takes on the role as caretaker. The feather is a “relative, a part of our family,” and is a connection to the Creator, he explained.

You don’t carry the eagle feather, the “eagle feather carries you. And you need to have that thinking,” Whiteduck added.

Before the swearing in ceremony, Whiteduck gathered with other elders outside of the court to prepare the feather.

“We smudge the feather, we prayed with the feather,” he said, noting the symbolism and significance of this ceremony taking place on unceded Algonquin territory.

The transfer of the feather was held right before Justice O’Bonsawin was sworn in on Sept. 1, 2022, with Whiteduck then presenting the feather to the judge in a private ceremony.

“One of his requests was that the Chief of my community, Rick O'Bomsawin,” would attend with a “high school student from my community, so that we could do the transfer of knowledge to her,” Justice O’Bonsawin explained, noting the event was “quite special” as it was an intimate occasion held in her office.

Her immediate family — her sons, husband, and parents — as well as Chief O'Bomsawin, the student, Professor Eva Ottawa from the University of Ottawa, and Chief Justice Wagner watched on as Whiteduck smudged and “purified the eagle feather,” gifting it to Justice O’Bonsawin.

Whiteduck also gave an “eagle feather to gift as a transfer of knowledge to the young woman who was here from my community,” she added.

After this private ceremony, “we went to the Reading Room where it was official, where I signed the documents, and I swore my oath on my eagle feather,” said Justice O’Bonsawin, noting she named the feather after her grandmother.

The judge was very close with her grandmother, calling her a “leading light in my life.”

“She was extremely modern for her time, and she had always encouraged me to pursue my dreams, and to be an independent, strong woman… and she taught me how to be courageous. She was outspoken, and wasn't your typical grandmother from our era,” Justice O’Bonsawin reflected, noting that her grandmother had been “very ill in September and in her final days.”

The judge said she was fortunate that her grandmother was able to see her be sworn onto the country’s highest court.

“So, I named my feather after her,” she added, emphasizing that when you receive an eagle feather, “you receive the teachings that go with it, and one of them is how to take care of her.”

Therefore, for 28 days, Justice O’Bonsawin “fed” the feather by smudging her on a daily basis.

Another important aspect, Justice O’Bonsawin pointed out, is that the feather lives in her office; “she's not in a box.”

“At times, people think, 'well, you put it in a showcase.’ But she's living and breathing in my office, she's not in a box, she's there and I feed her on a monthly basis, which is just smudging with her. She's very special,” she explained.

It is an honour to receive an eagle feather, the judge stressed, and with it, she’s bringing “traditional knowledge to the court.”  

“Part of my legacy, hopefully, is going to be that transfer of knowledge, including my eagle feather,” she added, noting the feather will be left with the court upon her departure for future generations.

According to Whiteduck, the eagle feather was an acknowledgement of the judge’s new position and the connection she has with her community.

“We were acknowledging her with gratitude, and love, and respect,… for her, and for the position that she was now going to hold; an important thing for her as an Indigenous person,” he explained, stressing that when you hold an eagle feather it means you’re “speaking the truth.”

“It's speaking the truth, but also being able to understand the truth when it's spoken to you,” he added, emphasizing the importance of listening in order to understand.

For Indigenous people, Whiteduck explained, the eagle is the bird that “flies the highest, closest to the Creator, so that when you hold it, it's like the Creator is noticing that you're holding it and is pleased by that.”

The eagle is “that messenger to the Creator, so the Creator takes immediate notice,” he added, noting that eagles have always been sacred and receiving a feather is a rare event.

“I acknowledge that in giving an eagle feather to Justice O'Bonsawin within the colonizer’s system, because the Supreme Court is part of colonization, part of the Constitution… I was bringing it on behalf of other people to her as an Indigenous woman, as an Abenaki woman, proud of who she is,” he said, noting again her connection to the land and her people.

When asked whether she’s breaking down barriers as the court’s first Indigenous judge, Justice O’Bonsawin determined that she’s bringing her “unique perspective” instead.

“I don't know if there are barriers per se. I think that what I bring is a unique perspective as an Indigenous woman,” she explained, noting that the court “strives to be inclusive.”

But, she added, her appointment is “definitely a first.”

“I’m hoping that my own life journey and my own experience as an Indigenous Franco-Ontarian woman from a very rural area is going to bring a different perspective. It doesn't mean it's the best one, but it's definitely going to be unique,” she said.

“We want the court to be reflective of who we are as a society,” Justice O’Bonsawin noted, hoping that her “journey here is going to inspire young women across the board.”  

“Not just Indigenous women,” she stressed, “but also visible minorities, LGBTQ2S, because I think that a lot of us, as women who come from a different background, don't necessarily automatically see that we can make the journey to a court like this. And I want them to know that it's possible.”

“If you dream big, you persevere, you work hard, you can get the same as anyone else. And I'm hoping that young women are going to realize that because, for me, that's the most important part of my journey; to try to inspire someone to believe in themselves, that they can make it to this point too,” she added.

While Justice O’Bonsawin’s time on the bench has just begun, her legacy at the Supreme Court has already been secured by the transfer of knowledge and the gift of the eagle feather.

When the judge departs, Jaqueline will “be there” still, a part of the court and Canada’s legal history.

Justice O’Bonsawin was born in Hanmer, a small Francophone community near Sudbury, ON. Her work as a jurist brought her to Ottawa, where she now lives with her family. Justice O’Bonsawin is an Abenaki member of the Odanak First Nation.

Photo credit: Supreme Court of Canada Collection.

If you have any information, story ideas or news tips for Law360 Canada, please contact Amanda Jerome at Amanda.Jerome@lexisnexis.ca or 416-524-2152.