HALIFAX — Friends and family reflected Thursday on the life of Donald Marshall, a Nova Scotia Mi’kmaq who transformed aboriginal fishing rights in Canada and brought scrutiny to the province’s justice system after spending 11 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.
Marshall, 55, died at 1:30 a.m. Thursday at a hospital in Sydney, N.S., after being admitted about a week ago.
His sister, Roseanne Sylvester, said Marshall suffered from kidney failure, which she linked to anti-rejection drugs he had been taking following a double lung transplant six years ago.
“It was very peaceful,” she said about his final moments in the intensive care unit, where he was surrounded by relatives.
Marshall’s nephew Glen Gould also wrote of his death in a statement posted on his Facebook site, referring to his uncle by his nickname, Junior.
“Thank all of you for your thoughts and prayers. My uncle Jr. passed away peacefully surrounded by family,” the post said.
Marshall spent much of his youth in prison after being convicted — at age 17 — of murder in the 1971 stabbing death of Sandy Seale in Sydney.
He was released in 1982 and was acquitted in 1983.
Roy Ebsary, 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 conviction.
The inquiry concluded that Marshall was a victim of racism and incompetence, and it said the Nova Scotia justice system failed him.
The seven-volume report pointed the finger at police, judges, Marshall’s original defence lawyers, Crown lawyers and bureaucrats.
“The criminal justice system failed Donald Marshall Jr. at virtually every turn from his arrest and wrongful conviction for murder in 1971 up to and even beyond his acquittal by the Court of Appeal in 1983,” said the report.
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.”
Marshall — one of 13 children of Caroline and Donald Marshall Sr., once the grand chief of the Mi’kmaq nation — would also come to be known as a champion of native rights.
A second, high-profile legal case involved Marshall’s 1996 conviction for catching and selling eels out of season, and without a licence.
In 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 New Brunswick and Nova Scotia have the right to earn a moderate livelihood from hunting, fishing and gathering.
Sylvester said her soft-spoken brother had a sense of accomplishment about the decision, even though he had great reluctance to take on the court challenge and thrust himself back in the spotlight.
“I think he was proud because he knew he did it for his people,” she said. “He didn’t do a lot of fishing after that, but he knew all the reserves would benefit from it and he was happy for that.”
Marshall also found himself in court for other reasons over the years, including a recent case involving charges of assaulting and threatening his wife, Colleen D’Orsay.
That matter was scheduled to return to court later this month to deal with his lawyer’s allegation that the legal process was abused after Marshall pleaded not guilty to some charges in the case.
Defence lawyer Daniel Burman had said he would be seeking a stay of charges on the basis that the prosecution had contravened the notions of justice in the Charter of Rights.