Grand Chief remembered as a kind, humble, and caring leader

Mourners and pallbearers carry Grand Chief Ben Sylliboy to his resting place last Saturday afternoon in We’koqma’q.

John Gillis
The Inverness Oran
    Grand Chief Ben Sylliboy was remembered as a kind, humble, and caring leader at his funeral held last Saturday afternoon in his home village of We’koqma’q First Nation.

   Sylliboy died peacefully of natural causes Nov. 30 at Cape Breton Regional Hospital surrounded by friends and family, including his wife, Marie, and two daughters.
    A Mikmaw choir sang hymns and prayers prior to Bishop Brian Dunn leading as celebrant while the community and dignitaries alike paid their respects for the well-loved Grand Chief.
    Pastor Martin MacDougall of Eskasoni noted in his homily that Ben found a great woman in his wife, Catherine Marie Sylliboy, and that throughout his life he was blessed with “the gift of humility.”
    Bishop Brian Dunn spoke of Ben’s great faith and the role he played in the 400th anniversary  of the relationship between Grand Chief Membertou and the Roman Catholic Church. 
    Perry Bellegarde, national chief, also attended the ceremony along with other Chiefs from around the region.
    “Deepest condolences to the family, friends, and Mi’kmaq Nation after Grand chief Ben Sylliboy of Waycobah First Nation passes. He was a well-respected, beloved Elder and statesman,” said Bellegarde.
    Sylliboy was also remembered for his role in moving forward with the reconciliation process, an issue close to his heart given he was himself a residential school survivor.
    Nova Scotia Premier Stephen MacNeil, who attended the ceremony, gave his condolences on behalf of Nova Scotians.
    “I extend heartfelt sympathies to the family of the late Grand Chief Ben Sylliboy and all Mi’kmaw people. Grand Chief Sylliboy was a steadfast leader for his people, a wise mentor, and a highly-respected partner in our treaty relationship with the Mi’kmaq. His passing is a loss that will be felt across Nova Scotia and the Atlantic region,” said MacNeil.
    The Mikmaw will see a one-year mourning period for the Grand Chief before choosing a successor.
    We’koqma’q resident, Marjorie Gould, worked closely with Sylliboy and all Nova Scotia Chiefs when she was in an executive director position for Nova Scotia Mikmaw in the 1990s.
    “Grand Chief Ben certainly played a great role in the region in so many areas.  He was a very quiet leader but he was there all the time and he showed great leadership qualities in his community even at an early age, at a time when the community of We’koqma’q was down to only seven families, Ben resisted the centralization that saw so many of our people move to larger communities and he played a great role in building our community back to where it is with a population of 1,000 people today.  He had so many things on his plate and he was very involved with the church, he was there to help people and worked hard to improve the lives of our people,” said Gould.
    Tom Gunn, a founder of L’Arche in Iron Mines and now principal at NSCC’s Strait Campus remembered Sylliboy as a friend and great supporter of L’Arche Cape Breton in a letter to The Oran this week.
    “When Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche came to Whycocomagh in 1986 to lead a retreat with the Mi’kmaq people, Ben, Marie, and Margaret stepped up and helped organize that wonderful event. We didn’t have an organizing committee, or a budget, or a plan but somehow the event grew and grew and over 400 Mi’kmaq people came.  Somehow, everyone was fed and everyone found a place to stay.
    “Ben was a very gentle and kind man. He had a real soft spot for people with disabilities and was genuinely concerned for their well-being. He looked out for people with disabilities in his community and also for the folks in L’Arche in a very genuine manner. 
    “In 1992 Ben became Grand Chief of the Mi’kmaq nation and L’Arche Cape Breton had a special mass and celebration for him. Ben was concerned about Mi’kmaq people with disabilities and often asked me if we could start a home in We’koqma’q. It wasn’t simple as the systemic barriers were immense but together we began to work on all the complex jurisdictional issues that prevented Mi’kmaq people with disabilities from getting residential supports within their own community. Eventually, we were able to start Mawita’mk (Being Together) Society and open a home and supportive apartments within Ben’s cherished community. Mawita’mk has flourished since that time and Ben Sylliboy was a faithful board member, volunteer, and friend who seldom missed a meeting or an opportunity to support the cause,” said Gunn. 
We’koqma’q community remembers Grand Chief
    This is how the community remembered Grand Chief Sylliboy at the funeral service last Saturday afternoon.
    “Humble, compassionate, dedicated, generous, community, and nation minded are words that described Grand Chief Benjamin Sylliboy. For the Mi’kmaq these are important timeless qualities for our leaders of the Grand Council. To understand the leadership of the Mi’kmaq Grand Council or Sante Mawio’mi, one must understand that Grand Council has no hierarchy. The Grand Chief is the first among equals. The role of Grand Chief, just as the role of the keptins with whom he works, comes with no paid salary or monetary reward, but rather the role honours a life of service to the Mi’kmaw nation. He was chosen by the families and communities, and through his life-long commitment to his community Ben Sylliboy has become a respected leader and statesman for the Mi’kmaw community to Canada and beyond.
    Grand Chief Ben Sylliboy was born in the Mi’kmaw community of We’koqma’q in Nova Scotia on March 2, 1941. His parents were William and Nancy Sylliboy who lived there most of their lives and had four children – Mary Ellen, Theresa, Benjamin, and Margaret. Grand Chief Ben Sylliboy grew up in a modest household, just as many Mi’kmaq at the time. At the age of six, Grand Chief Sylliboy was sent to the Indian residential school in Shubenacadie, where his parents believed he would receive a good education because of the Christianity belief system of those times.
    Like many Mi’kmaq who attended the residential school, Grand Chief witnessed many things a six-year-old should not experience, but he always professed that he was always thankful that he was only there for four years.
    After the residential school, Grand Chief Sylliboy moved back to his home community and within months was infected with tuberculosis, a sickness that would last 18 months and take him in and out of hospitals. When he was finally healthy, Grand Chief Sylliboy attended the Indian Day School for four years until he received a job clear-cutting trees for the incoming power lines.
    Grand Chief worked a variety of jobs during his lifetime but is remembered for travelling to Ottawa in 1965 where he took part in what was considered training and upgrading courses for Indians, a program created by the Department of Indian Affairs. In 1968, Grand Chief married Catherine Marie Sylliboy and has two daughters, Michelle and Christina.
    Because of his community involvement and willingness to help out community members and the church, Ben Sylliboy was first selected as keptin by his community in 1968. A keptin is a life-long position of great honour often referred to as a hereditary or life chief in other parts of Canada. A keptin is a leader within his community and nation, and is part of the original governing system of the Mi’kmaw called the Mi’qmaq Grand Council or Sante Mawio’mi.
    At the time and still very much today, the role of the Mi’kmaq Grand Council was very spiritual and involved promoting the Mi’kmaw faith and culture. As a keptin then for the Mi’kmaq Grand Council, Grand Chief Sylliboy made it a priority to be present for community members for every death in the community as well as other spiritual functions and cultural events.
    In 1970 he was elected as a Indian Act Band Councillor in We’koqma’q, which is an elected form of leadership in the Mi’kmaq reserves. He served nine terms as councillor for his community. In 1991 he was informed by the Putus of the Grand Council, Charlie Herney, that then Grand Chief Donald Marshall who was very ill had asked that “Ben take on the role of Interim Grand Chief.” This came as a surprise to Grand Chief Sylliboy who humbly took on the role as requested. In 1991 during the following summer at the Feast of St. Anne, Grand Chief Sylliboy would be made permanent Grand Chief by the vote of the keptins of the Mi’kmaq Grand Council according to tradition.
    Throughout his official years as Grand Chief, Ben Sylliboy continued to promote the culture and spirituality of the Mi’kmaq and to encourage the Mi’kmaq Grand Council to maintain a nation-to-nation relationship with Canada. He presided over several important developments, such as the renewal of the Mi’kmaq Grand Council’s role as governing body with the Mi’kmaq, the recognition and implementation of Aboriginal and treaty rights in the Constitution of Canada, and our renewed relations with the Pope and the Vatican. He advised the Mi’kmaw chiefs on the path forward to constitutional reconciliation. Over the years he continued to seek guidance from other elders and was a firm believer in Mi’kmaq building their own education. He was instrumental in his latter years in having the province pardon previous Grand Chief Sylliboy for the wrongful conviction for hunting under the treaties.
    Grand Chief Sylliboy continued to be a part of meetings with other leaders and believed unity would help the Mi’kmaq in the future. Grand Chief Sylliboy continued his role up until his death on November 30th, 2017, when he died peacefully surrounded by his family, his community members, and members of the Mi’kmaw leadership. He continued to live in We’koqma’q First Nation with his wife along with many members of his family and community. A Mi’kmaw funeral for our head of state will be planned in the upcoming days with direction from his family and support of the Mi’kmaw Grand Council. The legacy of his love of the people and kindness toward all will be honoured and remembered.”