Nova Scotia

After 100 years, a Mi'kmaq family wants the role of hereditary grand chief restored

A Mi'kmaq family would like to see the title of grand chief return to a hereditary one and revert back to the Denny family. Grand chiefs have been elected since John Denny Jr. died in 1918.

Descendants of John Denny Jr., the grand chief of the Mi'kmaq from 1881-1918, paid tribute this week

Following John Denny Jr.'s death in 1918 the grand chief of the Mi'kmaq Nation became an elected position. (Submitted by John Silliboy)

Members of a large Mi'kmaq family are paying tribute to one of their ancestors who died 100 years ago this week.

John Denny Jr. was the last hereditary grand chief of the Mi'kmaq Nation, from 1881 to 1918.

The grand chief is a traditional, unpaid post as senior statesman and spiritual leader of all Mi'kmaq communities. It was traditionally passed on from father to eldest son.

Following Denny's death the post became an elected one, chosen by the Mi'kmaq Grand Council. But now, some of his descendants are musing about whether the title should revert back to the Denny family.

"We had originally signed over this seat to the Grand Council as a loan," said John Sylliboy, Denny's great-great-grandson.

He is researching Denny's legacy and gave a presentation to family members this week in Eskasoni. Sylliboy said the story has been passed down through the generations that Denny agreed before his death his successor should be elected, but the position would ultimately revert back to the family.

"Through our oral tradition, and through our families, we always understood that that needs to go back to our family," Sylliboy said.

John Sylliboy is Denny's great-great grandson. He is researching his ancestor's legacy. (Wendy Martin/ CBC)

No one is sure why the post became an elected one. Some cite the influence of the Catholic Church, which wanted a hand in choosing a suitable spiritual candidate.

It's thought the introduction of the Indian Act, in 1876, also played a part. The Act required elected governments.

But family members say the arrangement was intended to be temporary.

Mary Jane Sanipass, a great-granddaughter of Denny's, remembers being told about a letter he wrote in which he specifically said he did not want his son to become a grand chief because "it's hard work and I got sick from that."

Denny indicated the position should revert back to the family "when his sons or his family were ready," said Sanipass, "and we're ready now." 

Mary Jane Sanipass and Trevor Sanipass are descendants of Denny's. (submitted by John Sanipass)

The position of grand chief became vacant in December 2017 with the death of Ben Sylliboy. Tradition dictates a period of mourning of one year, after which the Mi'kmaq Grand Council chooses a successor.

Sylliboy said the Denny family will use the year to gather together stories from elders and written records to bolster their case.

Trevor Sanipass, another great-great-grandson, said in a spirit of reconciliation, he believes the title must be returned.

"If it wasn't for colonialism, the natural line of progression wouldn't have been interrupted, and we would have the grand chief on our side of the family today," he said.

Sylliboy said the role is just as relevant today as it once was, as Indigenous people strive to protect their treaty rights and preserve their culture and language.

"This resurgence of treaty responsibility, relationship-building, reconciliation, and the resurgence of treaty education," said Sylliboy, "That's the role of the grand chief now."

Sanipass said under a hereditary system of choosing a successor, the community and the family can help shape a suitable leader.

"We will have people that we know that could take on that role," said Sanipass.  "And we could work with the Grand Council and say, 'This is the person that we feel we should have.'"

About the Author

Wendy Martin


Wendy Martin has been a reporter for nearly 30 years. Her first job in radio was at the age of three, on a show called Wendy's House on CFCB Radio in Corner Brook, N.L. Get in touch at