Suzanne Carrière

December 21, 2021

First Métis citizenship judge advancing reconciliation one ceremony at a time

Suzanne Carrière is the first Métis citizenship judge in Canada.

Perhaps it was her Métis father - who hunted, fished, and sold furs - who spurred her interest, but citizenship judge Suzanne Carrière has been passionate about Indigenous issues since she was in high school.

"I always felt some affinity or something for the culture and the community," Carrière said.

"I grew up 45 minutes outside of Winnipeg, and I remember on the weekend sometimes it was a big drive to downtown Winnipeg to go drop off dad's furs."

In her law school application, she wrote in her statement of interest about wanting to make a difference in Indigenous communities.

Carrière has practiced law for 14 years and lives in St. Adolphe, where she grew up. She resides with her husband and three children. After obtaining her law degree in Calgary, she practiced law there for several years. When she moved back to Manitoba to start a family, she began work at the Department of Justice in Aboriginal Legal Services where she stayed for eight years. It was there that she started working on the Indigenous issues she was passionate about, becoming involved for five years in the Independent Assessment Process - a dispute resolution process established to resolve claims of abuse suffered at Indian Residential Schools.

"That was a process where survivors from residential schools can make claims for compensation if they were physically or sexually assaulted during their time at the school," Carrière said. "I would attend some of these hearings and hear survivors' stories about what happened to them at the schools and how it affected them."

Other than her current work as a citizenship judge for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC), Carrière said this work for the Department of Justice was the most important work she has ever done in her career.

"I heard hundreds of stories, over 200 stories from survivors, so their firsthand stories about what happened to them at the schools."

When the residential school work wrapped up, she was still at the Department of Justice, but no longer felt fulfilled.

"I loved the residential school work, as hard as it was to hear these stories. It just felt like really important work, and I was passionate about it and I really liked it," Carrière said.

A colleague of hers showed her a job posting for a citizenship judge. Even though it seemed like a good fit, Carrière was reluctant to leave her Aboriginal law practice for the new opportunity.

"I'm so glad I did because it turns out I have more of a platform now to talk about reconciliation and to talk about Indigenous issues than I ever did sitting in my desk in an office at Department of Justice," she said, "So I kind of learned a big lesson there, which is I don't necessarily need to have a title or a position that's specific to Indigenous peoples to feel like I'm doing meaningful work, and work that can still have an impact on reconciliation."

She's now in her second three-year term of a role she finds incredibly fulfilling. The first Indigenous citizenship judge, and one of nine citizenship judges in all of Canada, Carrière's job includes reviewing Canadian citizenship applications to approve or refuse, holding hearings with applicants to ask questions and request further evidence to make the decisions, as well as promotional work.

"We do go into classrooms, or we meet with newcomer groups or really just anybody that wants to hear from us. So sometimes we do speaking engagements for conferences, that kind of thing, to talk about what it means to be a Canadian citizen and what are the rights and responsibilities involved with that," she said.

The largest part of the job is ceremonial - presiding over citizenship ceremonies to administer the Oath of Citizenship to swear in new Canadian citizens. Carrière has sworn in over 40,000 new Canadians in over 1,000 ceremonies from around 160 countries.

While ceremonies have gone virtual since the pandemic, in-person, pre-COVID ceremonies would typically have 80 candidates for citizenship. Ceremonies would often include a representative from the RCMP, and an MLA or MP to provide congratulatory remarks. After a speech from the citizenship judge and the swearing of the Oath, judges would present certificates of citizenship, followed by the singing of O Canada.

"They're very loving, touching, special ceremonies. Obviously for people that are becoming Canadian citizens, it's a huge milestone in their lives for a lot of them. So they can get a bit emotional and people are just so overjoyed about it, which is great," Carrière said.

While most ceremonies prior to the pandemic took place at VIA Rail's Union Station, they can take place anywhere. Carrière has presided over ceremonies at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, various schools in Winnipeg, the Winnipeg Art Gallery, and the HMCS Chippawa.

Carrière presided over a ceremony for International Human Rights Day at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.
Photo credit: Institute for Canadian Citizenship.

Carrière presided over the very first virtual citizenship ceremony in Canadian history on April 1, 2020 for Dr. Adolf Ng, a University of Manitoba researcher.

"He was doing research on how COVID was affecting supply chain management," she explained, "So he got special, kind of urgent processing. Because he needed to travel to China for his research - he had received a grant for it and all that. And so he was the first one to get his citizenship virtually."

The virtual ceremonies started out being one-on-one, but now take place for large groups.

"I'm up to about a hundred people at a time on Zoom a few times a day every day of the week basically," Carrière said, adding that she has presided over more than 700 ceremonies on Zoom.

Carrière takes her role as the first Métis and first Indigenous citizenship judge very seriously.

"I take it upon myself to really wear that crown proudly. So, I talk about reconciliation at every single one of my ceremonies," she said.

While attending an awards dinner in 2015, Carrière was inspired by a speech from the Honourable Justice Murray Sinclair, Manitoba's first Indigenous judge.

"He said something about reconciliation. He said it turns on a very simple concept: I want to be your friend and I want you to be mine. And I remember when I heard that back then I just thought, 'oh wow.' And I had been doing the residential school work and I thought a lot about reconciliation. But even for someone like me, I thought, this is just a nice, simple way to describe reconciliation. Because I think, sometimes we think it's so complicated, and if we think it's complicated, then we have a hard time seeing what our role is in the whole thing. And I just thought, that is a great way to put it. Just, I want to be your friend and I want you to be mine," she said.

"We all know what that means, like it doesn't matter if you fully understand Canada's complex history and their shameful treatment of Indigenous peoples throughout history. As long as we all know how to be friends, then we can all move forward on this bumpy road to reconciliation."

Carrière especially relies on this quote for newcomers to Canada who are unfamiliar with Canadian history.

"Sometimes there's language barriers, and of course sometimes, the people I talk to, whether they're becoming new Canadians or whether it's because I am in their classrooms, sometimes they're young and they won't really understand the history of Canada," she said, "But this is why I rely so much on this quote from Mr. Sinclair, because everybody knows what a friend is whether you're old or young, or no matter what country you come from, no matter what language you speak, friendship is something that we can all understand."

Using that quote as much as she can, in her ceremonies and promotional events, has resonated. Carrière recently received a message from a woman she swore in over two years ago who is expecting her first child.

"She sent me a picture of these beautiful baby beaded moccasins and a star blanket that somebody gifted to her because of her baby that she's having soon, and she said, 'Oh, look judge Carrière, this made me think of you when I received this gift. I want to be your friend, and I want you to be mine,'" Carrière said. "This is someone that I swore in two years ago and that quote stayed with her, and she wanted to share that with me, which I thought was so cool."

In 2019, Carrière helped plan a special ceremony for Indigenous Day Live at The Forks.

For National Indigenous Peoples Day in 2019, Carrière helped plan a special ceremony, called a platform party, for Indigenous Day Live, which takes place annually at The Forks.

"I put together an all-Indigenous platform party," she said.

MP Robert-Falcon Ouellette, MLA Wab Kinew, a First Nations IRCC clerk, a First Nations RCMP officer, and a First Nations member from the Canadian Armed Forces took part in the ceremony, which was opened by two Elders, Barb and Clarence Nepinak, and hosted by APTN.

"That was really special to me as well," Carrière said.

The Oath of Citizenship was updated in June 2021 following the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's Call to Action #94, which called for the Oath to reference the treaty rights of Indigenous peoples. Carrière presided over the very first ceremony in Canada with the new Oath on June 22. For the first time, 31 new Canadians from eight different countries swore a revised Oath recognizing the rights of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples.

"That was very special, and it was a bit of an emotional ceremony, because of course revising the Oath of Citizenship had been in the works already, like it was already making its way through the House of Commons and the Senate," she said, "But it all got fast-tracked after the Kamloops discovery of the 215 children that were buried there."

It was important for Carrière to address the Kamloops discovery and the importance of changing the Oath.

"Citizenship ceremonies are obviously very happy, special events, but I wanted to bring that into the ceremony," she said.

"I brought in a moment of silence. We had a minute of silence to honour those 215, plus anyone else who either didn't make it home from residential school, or anyone else who was even impacted by residential schools, so that was a very special ceremony to be part of."

Cayuga Elder Cat Criger and Inuk Senator Margaret Dawn Anderson were both part of the ceremony. Honoured to be the judge in this historical ceremony, Carrière thought about the Kamloops discovery and other discoveries throughout the ceremony, including the residential school survivors she worked with in her previous position at the Department of Justice.

"Because of the work that I've done with residential school survivors before, that whole topic is so near and dear to my heart," she said.

"I've always been so inspired by their courage, and their resilience. All of that was kind of going on in the back of my mind throughout that whole entire ceremony. And I think that kind of came through too. It did feel really momentous, and it felt special and it felt emotional. It was beautiful."

In addition to speaking about reconciliation as much as possible, Carrière makes a point to talk about being Métis at all of her ceremonies. She wears a beaded flower brooch on her robes as a conversation starter.

"I love having conversations with new Canadians, and it happens a lot. People are interested in talking about (reconciliation) especially after Kamloops and other discoveries after that," she said.

"New Canadians I find are really receptive to the message and the idea of reconciliation. Sometimes even more so than people that are born here. I think because many of them might come from other colonized countries, so they've experienced colonization before. So a lot of them really seem to get it, and those are really kind of the best parts of my job are when I get to have interesting conversations with people about reconciliation and what people's role is in reconciliation here in Canada."


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