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Joe B. Marshall, respected Mi'kmaw elder, dead at 83

Joe B. Marshall, a respected Mi'kmaw elder, veteran, educator and lawyer who championed for the rights of Mi’kmaq, has died. (Kwilmu'kw Maw-klusuaqn - image credit)
Joe B. Marshall, a respected Mi'kmaw elder, veteran, educator and lawyer who championed for the rights of Mi’kmaq, has died. (Kwilmu'kw Maw-klusuaqn - image credit)

Membertou's Joe B. Marshall, a respected elder, veteran, educator and lawyer who advocated for the rights of the Mi'kmaq, has died.

Marshall's obituary says he died following an illness. He was 83.

He was a strong protector of Mi'kmaw culture, language and treaty rights throughout his life.

He was a veteran of the Royal Canadian Air Force. In 1969, he co-founded the Union of Nova Scotia Indians, which is now known as the Union of Nova Scotia Mi'kmaq.

He was a survivor of the Shubenacadie Indian Residential School and pressed to keep his language and cultural history alive. It was something he made sure to pass along to his children, including his daughter, Eleanor Bernard.

"I didn't get bedtime stories like every other child," Bernard told CBC Radio's Mainstreet Cape Breton on Monday. "I heard about what was going on with the union and their advocacy and he was so excited about it."

Bernard said her father's reconciliation for what the schools tried to take from him was ensuring that the language and culture thrives. He always spoke about that, she said.

She said her father's commitment and dedication to keeping the language alive allows her to use it with her children and grandchildren.

While in his 50s, he completed a law degree from Dalhousie University and became an associate professor of Mi'kmaq studies and political science at Cape Breton University.

He absolutely loved his courses, Bernard said. She said he "brought everything that he experienced in life at the union, as a lawyer, going back to school himself as an adult."

"He shared everything that he experienced in negotiating with the government while they were lobbying for the union, and all of our rights — he shared all of that with the students. He wanted them to have all of that knowledge."

'A microcosm of Mi'kmaw history'

Eric Zscheile, a former co-worker at Kwilmu'kw Maw-klusuaqn and a longtime friend, remembers Marshall as "a microcosm of Mi'kmaw history."

"Joe was an incredible champion of the Mi'kmaw language and his constant teaching to me of the fact that within the language lies the culture, within the language lies the future."

Zscheile and Marshall became friends in 1992 through discussions and meetings with the Confederacy of Mainland Mi'kmaq and the Union of Nova Scotia Indians.

Zscheile said whether it was political discussions or community consultations, Marshall was involved. No matter how difficult the situation was, he would be the first to remind people to work together.

Saying goodbye

Bernard said that before his death her father often had visitors at the hospital who would pay their respects. They thanked him for all he had done and said their goodbyes.

She said in Mi'kmaw culture, it is believed that you should never leave a dying person alone. She said his family and friends stayed with him in the hospital, offering prayers and singing hymns.

"At the time when he was conscious, he was so happy to see other people and it was like he was saying his final goodbye," Bernard said.

"But he had this smile on his face … and speaking the language and hearing the language from other people [was] so amazing."

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