Native activist Donald Marshall dies at age 55

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Native activist Donald Marshall dies at age 55

A Nova Scotia Mi’kmaq icon who was at the centre of one of Canada’s highest profile wrongful conviction cases, and who also triggered an historic Supreme Court decision on native fishing rights, has died.

Donald Marshall Jr. was 55. His death comes the month before the 10-year anniversary of the historic Supreme Court Marshall decision that affirmed native fishing rights.

A member of his family confirmed Thursday, Aug. 6 that Marshall had died at around 1:30 a.m. at a hospital in Sydney, N.S.

Marshall had been admitted to hospital several days earlier and his family had confirmed he was terminally ill. He underwent a double lung transplant six years ago.

Marshall — one of 13 children of Caroline and Donald Marshall Sr., once the grand chief of the Mi’kmaq nation — became known as something of a champion of native rights because of a high-profile legal case involved Marshall’s 1996 conviction for illegally catching and selling eels out of season and without a licence.

In September 1999, the Supreme Court of Canada upheld a centuries-old treaty between Mi’kmaq natives and the British Crown in acquitting Marshall. The high court ruling also confirmed that Mi’kmaq and Maliseet in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick have the right to earn a moderate livelihood from hunting, fishing and gathering.

While the ruling delighted natives, some non-native lobster fishermen reacted with anger, fearing their livelihoods would be endangered by new entrants to the fishery. In southwestern N.S., hundreds of fishing boats were tied up at wharves in Yarmouth in protest as a means of controlling and blocking the harbour. In the Miramichi region of New Brunswick, violence erupted in the weeks following the court decision.

But while many will associate Marshall with that 1999 Supreme Court decision, it was the 11 years he spent in prison after being wrongfully convicted — at the age 17 — of murder in the 1971 stabbing death of Sandy Seale in Sydney, N.S. that thrust him into the spotlight.

He was released in 1982 after RCMP reviewed the case and he was acquitted in 1983. Roy Ebsary, an eccentric who bragged of having a prowess with knives, was eventually convicted of manslaughter in Seale’s death and spent a year in jail.

In 1990, Marshall was finally exonerated in the report of a royal commission into the wrongful murder conviction. The inquiry concluded that Marshall was a victim of racism and incompetence, and that the Nova Scotia justice system failed him at every turn.

The seven-volume report pointed the finger at police, judges, Marshall’s original defence lawyers, Crown lawyers and bureaucrats. But even though he was declared not guilty, the Appeal Court said he contributed in large measure to his own conviction, and that any miscarriage of justice was more apparent than real.

After turning the report over to the Nova Scotia cabinet, commission head Alex Hickman, then chief justice of the Newfoundland Supreme Court, said: “I really hope that at long last one Donald Marshall Jr. will stand high in the eyes of Nova Scotians, where he deserves to stand.” (From Transcontinental Media’s Cape Breton Post)

Organizations: Supreme Court of Canada, RCMP

Geographic location: Sydney, Nova Scotia, Canada New Brunswick Miramichi Nova Scotians Cape Breton

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