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Tory senator asks if it’s appropriate for an Indigenous colleague to hold an eagle feather

Conservative Senate Leader Don Plett has asked the Speaker to rule on whether it’s acceptable for a member of the upper house to hold an eagle feather when speaking in the chamber, saying he’s concerned that using this sort of “prop” may be against the rules.

Plett rose on a point of order Thursday when Manitoba Sen. Mary Jane McCallum, a Cree senator and a residential school survivor, was delivering a speech on Bill C-15, government legislation to enshrine the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) into Canadian law.

McCallum, who was joining the debate via Zoom, was seen holding an eagle fan while she delivered her remarks. Minutes into her speech, Plett interjected.

“I ask this very, very reluctantly. Very reluctantly. But we have rules in this chamber and one of them is not to allow any types of props. And I would consider what Sen. McCallum has there is a prop. I would ask you to rule on that,” Plett said.

Conservative Senate Leader Don Plett asked the Speaker on Thursday to rule on whether it’s appropriate for a senator to hold an eagle feather when speaking in the chamber. (Chris Rands/CBC)

After some pushback from his fellow senators, Plett later withdrew his point of order, saying he didn’t want to seem insensitive “in light of the present circumstances.” He said he did not intend to offend McCallum by raising the issue.

But he asked the Speaker to “create some rules around what is appropriate and what isn’t … I do believe we have rules around that.”

Generally speaking, props, objects or displays of any kind are not allowed in the chambers of Parliament.

The House of Commons Procedure and Practice says that “Speakers have consistently ruled out of order displays or demonstrations of any kind used by members to illustrate their remarks or emphasize their positions.”

“Similarly, props of any kind, used as a way of making a silent comment on issues, have always been found unacceptable in the Chamber.” This prohibition is generally followed in the Senate.

The question is whether an eagle feather is a “prop” — or an integral part of an individual’s cultural identity.

The eagle is considered sacred in First Nations and Native American cultures because it is said to be the bird that flies the highest and the closest to the creator.

Its feathers are used in many ceremonies, such as talking circles, healing ceremonies and powwows. They represent honesty, truth, majesty, strength, courage, wisdom, power and freedom.

Recognizing the importance of these feathers to some First Nations peoples, provincial courts in Alberta, Manitoba, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador have made them available to crime victims, witnesses, police officers and others to allow them to swear legal oaths without a Bible.

Elijah Harper, a Manitoba MLA and MP played a key role in defeating the Meech Lake accord. Harper folds an eagle feather for spiritual strength as he refused to support the Meech Lake accord in Winnipeg in 1990. (Wayne Glowacki/Winnipeg Free Press/Canadian Press)

Former Manitoba MLA Elijah Harper famously held an eagle feather when he rejected the Meech Lake Accord in 1990 — voting against a motion to debate the constitutional amendment in the legislature and derailing the ratification process. He was concerned that the amendment, which would have brought Quebec onside with the Constitution, was drafted without first consulting First Nations peoples.

‘It’s not a prop’

McCallum said Thursday she was clutching the eagle feathers when speaking on a “deep, deep subject” like UNDRIP because she was counselled to do so by elders.

“They said this is important, you take it with you, and that is why I have it with me today,” McCallum said in response to Plett’s objections.

“This is who I am, this is what was taken away from me, and I will not give it up again … It’s not a prop. This is a ceremonial object.”

Progressive Sen. Pierre Dalphond spoke in McCallum’s defence, saying the eagle feathers are “not a sign of anything except her own culture and her own identity.”

“We have colleagues who wear a turban on their head, we have colleagues who dress in a certain way that belongs to their culture or tradition, so I certainly don’t think it’s a point of order,” he said.

After Plett withdrew his point of order, McCallum carried on with her speech, holding the feather. “I do understand the rules and I do understand there needs to be change, and that change will come,” she said.

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