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, N.S., 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, N.S. “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?”‘