N.S. pardons late Mi'kmaq leader: 'The treatment of the grand chief was unjust'

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HALIFAX – The Nova Scotia government has pardoned and honoured a late Mi’kmaq grand chief, decades after he was convicted of illegal hunting.

Gabriel Sylliboy received only the second posthumous pardon in Nova Scotia history, after black civil rights pioneer Viola Desmond.

The province also apologized to Sylliboy at a ceremony at Government House in Halifax.

“The wrongs of the past can never be undone, but we can work together to do better for the children of this generation and of those that follow,” said Lt.-Gov. J.J. Grant, who granted the free pardon.

“This pardon … helps us acknowledge and learn from the struggles of the past and memorialize those who sought to exercise their rights.”

Sylliboy was born in 1874 in Whycocomagh, Cape Breton, and became the first elected Mi’kmaq grand chief and a passionate advocate for treaty rights.

He was convicted of hunting illegally in the late 1920s, but took his fight to the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia. He passed away in 1964.

“Grand Chief Sylliboy was a Mi’kmaw leader who acted with courage and integrity in this hunt at a time when aboriginal and treaty rights were not recognized with the full weight we accord them now,” said Premier Stephen McNeil.

“We recognize that the treatment of the grand chief was unjust. The province apologizes to the family of Grand Chief Sylliboy and the Mi’kmaw community for this injustice. An important step on our path toward reconciliation is recognizing the mistakes of the past so we can build a better future for all Nova Scotians.”

Naiomi Metallic, a law professor at Dalhousie University, said Sylliboy’s case was the first time treaty rights were used as a defence.

“There’s a quote I use when I’m teaching. The judge said something like, ‘Treaties are unconstrained acts between two sovereign powers and the Mi’kmaq were savages and incapable of having treaties,” said Metallic, who is Mi’kmaq and specializes in aboriginal law.

“(Sylliboy) apparently felt really bad that he had lost. He felt that he had let the Mi’kmaq people down by making an argument based on the treaties and not succeeding.”

Decades later, the Supreme Court of Canada affirmed the treaty rights of the Mi’kmaq people.

The court determined in 1985 that James Simon of Nova Scotia had the right to hunt for food. He relied on the same Peace and Friendship Treaty as Sylliboy for his defence.

And later, the Marshall ruling of 1999 upheld treaties from 1760 and 1761 that said Mi’kmaq can earn a moderate living from hunting and fishing. That case was brought by Donald Marshall Jr., well-known for having been wrongfully convicted of murder in the early 1970s and himself the son of a Mi’kmaq grand chief.

Metallic said Sylliboy is highly regarded in the Mi’kmaq community, calling him “a man of great significance.”

“For the time that it was, it was phenomenal that somebody had the bravery and the courage to do this. It’s so sad to think he went to his grave thinking he let his people down. He certainly didn’t,” she said.

“This man had to fight and ultimately lost and he bore the spiritual consequences of that in terms of how it affected him for the rest of his life. So it’s important for us to look to the past and correct those things if we can.”

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