Nova Scotia

Nova Scotia working on posthumous pardon for Mi'kmaq grand chief

The Nova Scotia government is working on a pardon for a major figure in Mi'kmaq history who died more than half a century ago.

Grand Chief Gabriel Sylliboy was convicted in 1929, before treaty rights were recognized

Grand Chief Gabriel Sylliboy was convicted of hunting out of season in 1929, before treaty rights were recognized. (Nova Scotia Museum)

The Nova Scotia government is working on a pardon for a major figure in Mi'kmaq history who died more than half a century ago.

Grand Chief Gabriel Sylliboy was arrested in 1929 and convicted for hunting out of season after being found with muskrat pelts. While Sylliboy attempted to use treaty rights as his defence, it wasn't until the 1980s that those rights were recognized by the courts. Sylliboy died in 1963.

Provincial Justice Minister Diana Whalen says an apology is forthcoming for the arrest and conviction of Mi'kmaq Grand Chief Gabriel Sylliboy on account of his 1929 conviction for hunting out of season. (CBC)

The province is working on the plan to grant him a pardon, Justice Minister Diana Whalen told a crowd of more than 500 people gathered in Halifax on Monday to celebrate the 30th annual Treaty Day.

Whalen told reporters her department and the province's Office of Aboriginal Affairs have been working on the effort and an apology is also coming. The pardon will come once it is certain to meet all legal requirements.

Andrew Denny, the Grand Keptin of the Mi'kmaq Grand Council and Sylliboy's great-great-grandson, said he first approached Premier Stephen McNeil on the matter during a meeting last year. In March, the province's First Nation chiefs made a formal ask of the government to act.

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)

"It fills my heart when I hear today that almost 90 years after the court told our grand chief that we have no treaties, that the province is taking steps to right that wrong," Denny told the gathering.

"I would like to acknowledge and thank the province and the premier for that."

He later told reporters the move would give closure to Sylliboy's family and the Mi'kmaq nation. The grand chief is of a similar significance as a country's head of state, he said.

'This is a very important figure in our history'

"Would you put the Queen in jail, or take them to court? This is a very important figure in our history."

Whalen said the move, which she believes is only the second of its kind in Canada, would also be symbolic for other Mi'kmaq and First Nations people unjustly convicted of crimes before the courts recognized their treaty rights. (The first time a pardon for the innocent and wrongly convicted was posthumously awarded in Canada was for Viola Desmond.)

"In modern time we certainly have a different interpretation: we recognize them and respect them," Whalen said, adding that pardoning someone of Sylliboy's stature would represent ​a pardon for others whose treaty rights weren't recognized by the court.