Nova Scotia

9 decades after hunting conviction, Mi'kmaq leader gets posthumous pardon

Gabriel Sylliboy served as Grand Chief of the Mi'kmaq Grand Council from 1918 until his death in 1964. In 1927, he was convicted of hunting out of season, but argued he had a treaty right to do so.

Grand Chief Gabriel Sylliboy pardoned today for a 1927 conviction for hunting out of season

Grand Chief Gabriel Sylliboy was convicted of hunting out of season in 1927, before his treaty rights were recognized. (Nova Scotia Museum)

A former Mi'kmaq leader who fought for the recognition of his treaty rights was honoured today in Halifax and given a posthumous pardon by the province for a nine-decade-old hunting conviction.

Gabriel Sylliboy was born in 1874. He served as Grand Chief of the Mi'kmaq Grand Council from 1918 until his death in 1964.

In 1927, he was found with muskrat pelts and convicted of hunting out of season. Sylliboy used treaty rights dating to 1752 as his defence during the court case and subsequent appeal, which he lost. Those rights weren't recognized by the courts until the 1980s.

"It was a big injustice, not only to my great-grandfather, but to our people," said Mi'kmaq Grand Keptin Andrew Denny of Eskasoni, Sylliboy's great-grandson.

Grand Keptin Andrew Denny of the Mi'kmaq Grand Council says it's important that all Canadians learn the history of the Mi'kmaw people. (CBC)

'He commanded respect'

Denny was only a baby when Sylliboy died, but said he knew him by reputation.

"He commanded respect," Denny said. "Young people who were about to get married would go and ask for his blessing. At the Chapel Island Mission boats would stop if he was crossing."

He said the question of a pardon was raised with the Grand Council on the 50th anniversary of Sylliboy's death.

"The family had asked us," Denny said. "If our grand chief was not guilty, how come the province and the Crown have never apologized or even pardoned him?"

Denny first approached Premier Stephen McNeil on the matter during a meeting last year. In March, the province's First Nation chiefs formally asked the government to act.

Today, Lt-Gov. J.J, Grant, as well as McNeil and Justice Minister Diana Whalen, issued an apology and pardoned Sylliboy. It is the second posthumous pardon in Nova Scotia's history — the first went to Viola Desmond.

Denny was in Halifax for the ceremony. He said it is not only an historic day but an educational one.

"It's very important for people to understand that we are allies," he said. "The Mi'kmaq are not subjects of the Crown in the fact that we have treaties and we are allies."