By SHERRI BORDEN COLLEY The Chronical Herald.ca
Donald Marshall Jr. stood for justice in his life and continues to be honored in his death.
An avid fisherman, Marshall — with much courage and sacrifice — dedicated his life to fighting for Mi’kmaq and equality rights. His struggles helped transform Canada’s justice system.
In 1971, the then 17-year-old from Membertou resident was wrongly convicted of a murder in Sydney.
"When they sent him to prison, it was hard on the family," his sister Roseanne Sylvester recalled in a recent interview, conducted six months after her brother’s death.
"My mother, every Christmas, she would sit at the phone and wait for him to call and then we would take turns talking to him. And (my mother) always believed that he never did what he was blamed (for)."
Marshall spent 11 years in prison before he was freed and subsequently acquitted. Another man was eventually convicted of the murder.
In 1999, Marshall scored his second major legal victory. That year, the Supreme Court of Canada sided with him in a decision that confirmed native fishing rights.
The decision came three years after Marshall was charged with fishing eels out of season, fishing without a licence and trying to sell illegally caught eels.
He took the case to the country’s highest court because he believed the treaties signed by his Mi’kmaq ancestors gave him the right to fish year-round and sell his catch — and the court agreed.
"He probably didn’t expect to accomplish all this when he was caught fishing the eels," Sylvester said from her Caribou Marsh home.
The decision "changed the lives of the Mi’kmaq and the Maliseet people, and all the communities in Atlantic Canada. The fisheries, now they make a livelihood from that," she said.
"He accomplished a lot of things in his life but he didn’t really want to be recognized."
On March 12, the Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society will host a day-long symposium to honour Marshall’s legacy at the Mi’kmaq Native Friendship Centre on Gottingen Street in Halifax. It comes 20 years after a royal commission in 1990 found that prejudice and institutional racism in Nova Scotia’s justice system led to Marshall’s wrongful murder conviction.
"I sometimes think . . . people think only of the wrongful conviction when they hear the name of Donald Marshall Jr." but he should be remembered for much more, Emma Halpern, the bar society’s equity officer, said in a recent interview.
His cases changed Canadian law, setting precedents in the area of wrongful convictions, compensation for those wrongfully convicted and aboriginal rights, Halpern said.
The barristers’ society always envisioned recognizing his impact on the aboriginal community and society in general, and the symposium is its way of honouring the mark he made on the legal profession, she said.
Marshall died last August at age 55 of complications from a double-lung transplant he had in 2003.
While Sylvester and her family welcome the recognition, they still wonder what Marshall’s life would have been like had he never gone to prison.
"Maybe he would have had a better life, maybe a family (earlier) because the best years of his life were gone," Sylvester said.
Marshall’s wife of two years, Colleen D’Orsay, knew a very private side of him.
"I think a lot of people have a lot of misconceptions about Donald and his legacy and what he’s done for Nova Scotia and marginalized people," D’Orsay said in a telephone interview from British Columbia, where she now lives.
"It’s important to know that what happened to Donald in his life could have happened to anyone and he was willing to stand up and make the most out of a bad situation . . . to make things better for others."
Because their two-year-old son, Donald Marshall III, will have no memories of his dad, D’Orsay said she will ensure he knows the historical impact his father had on society.
She also wants people to remember her husband for what he accomplished and not the times that he stumbled.
"Most of us would give up and curl up into a ball, he could have done that too and he never did. And I think that’s extraordinary," D’Orsay said.
Open to the public, the symposium is free of charge but advance registration is required, as seating is limited.
To register, email Emma Halpern or phone 902-422-1491.
‘He probably didn’t expect to accomplish all this when he was caught fishing the eels. . . . He accomplished a lot of things in his life but he didn’t really want to be recognized.’
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