‘He was the first to stand up for us’

Prov­ince par­dons late Cape Bre­ton Mi’kmaq leader


Gabriel Syl­li­boy died feel­ing like he failed his Mi’kmaq peo­ple.

The grand chief launched a fight for abo­rig­i­nal rights after be­ing charged with il­le­gal hunt­ing in the 1920s, but the courts of the era dis­missed the no­tion that a 1752 treaty gave Syl­li­boy any rights.

It would take an­other six decades be­fore those rights were rec­og­nized by the courts.

“Our grand chief was re­ally quite sad about the fact that he was charged and wasn’t able to be suc­cess­ful in ob­tain­ing Mi’kmaq rights for his peo­ple,’’ said Jaime Bat­tiste, the prov­ince’s treaty ed­u­ca­tion lead.

“He went to his deathbed think­ing he let the Mi’kmaq peo­ple down.’’

On Thurs­day, nearly 90 years after his con­vic­tion, the Nova Sco­tia gov­ern­ment par­doned and hon­oured Syl­li­boy, who was born in 1874 in Why­co­co­magh, and be­came the first elected Mi’kmaq grand chief.

At Gov­ern­ment House in Hal­i­fax, Syl­li­boy was feted as a Nova Sco­tia hero.

“While we for­mally com­plete this process, it is not sim­ply the stroke of a pen on the Queen’s be­half that is the only com­po­nent of what we un­der­take to­day,’’ said Lt.-Gov. J.J. Grant, who granted the free par­don at a cer­e­mony.

“It is a process of treaty ed­u­ca­tion that in­cludes un­der­stand­ing and valu­ing what the Mi’kmaq have con­trib­uted in shap­ing this prov­ince and na­tion.’’

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

He was con­victed of hunt­ing il­le­gally in 1928, and died in 1964.

Speak­ing di­rectly to Syl­li­boy’s grand­son Ge­orge Syl­li­boy at the cer­e­mony, Premier Stephen McNeil apol­o­gized.

“I want to say to you, to your an­ces­tors, to the grand chief, how sorry I am,’’ said McNeil, not­ing that he was born in 1964 and it has taken his life­time for the prov­ince to rec­og­nize Syl­li­boy’s legacy.

Mem­bers of the Syl­li­boy fam­ily and the Mi’kmaq com­mu­nity sub­mit­ted a pe­ti­tion for the free par­don sev­eral years ago. Bat­tiste said he sat down with McNeil in late 2015 and he agreed to the apol­ogy.

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.

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 1752 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.

Bat­tiste, who is a Mi’kmaq his­to­rian and ac­tivist, said he hopes the apol­ogy helps Syl­li­boy’s story be­come more widely known.

“We hope very much that the name Gabriel Syl­li­boy be­comes as com­mon as Vi­ola Des­mond,’’ said Bat­tiste, as dozens of de­scen­dants of Syl­li­boy hugged and chat­ted after the cer­e­mony.

“Four years ago dur­ing the 50th an­niver­sary of his death, his fam­ily said, ‘There’s noth­ing known about our grand chief and what he stood for and what he tried to do.’ We needed that in our his­tory books. We needed peo­ple in our own Mi’kmaq com­mu­ni­ties to un­der­stand that he was the first to stand up for us in this way.’’

Peter Paul said his grand­fa­ther is highly re­garded in the Mi’kmaq com­mu­nity.

“When he spoke, you could hear a pin drop,’’ said the 67-year-old man, who is from Eska­soni. “He had a lot of re­spect from the peo­ple.’’

Bat­tiste said he’s heard sto­ries that wher­ever Syl­li­boy walked, peo­ple stopped and waited un­til he passed out of re­spect.

But he also had a sense of hu­mour. “If peo­ple wanted to get mar­ried, they would come to him and ask for his bless­ing,’’ said Bat­tiste, adding he has 47 liv­ing grand­chil­dren. “But if it was his grand­son or son get­ting mar­ried, he would tell the woman, ‘You couldn’t find some­one bet­ter than that?’’’


A por­trait of Gabriel Syl­li­boy is dis­played at Gov­ern­ment House in Hal­i­fax on Thurs­day. The Nova Sco­tia gov­ern­ment par­doned and hon­oured Syl­li­boy, a late Mi’kmaq grand chief, decades after he was con­victed of il­le­gal hunt­ing.

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