SYDNEY, N.S. – Holding an eagle feather above Donald Marshall’s coffin on Monday, Alan Knockwood came to say goodbye to his friend.
Knockwood joined hundreds of mourners at Marshall’s funeral service, remembering the man whose wrongful murder conviction led to a royal commission on the state of the justice system.
“The eagle is the one who is closest to the Great Spirit,” explained Knockwood, who held the feather over the coffin as it was carried into St. Anthony Daniel Roman Catholic Church.
“He is also our protector and when I raised the feather up it was to ask him to look after all who came beneath it and to protect Donald on his journey home.”
Marshall, sometimes called a reluctant native activist, died at the age of 55 last week after complications linked to a double lung transplant six years ago.
He was sentenced to life in prison for the stabbing death of a friend in 1971, but maintained his innocence throughout his 11 years in prison.
His acquittal in 1983 brought sweeping changes to the justice system, which the commission found was plagued by incompetence and racism.
Anne Derrick, now a provincial court judge who represented Marshall as his lawyer at the inquiry, said she was able to spend a few hours with him in hospital before he died last Thursday.
“He was a man with a lot of depth and a lot of resilience,” she said outside the church under a grey sky.
“I will never forget him and I feel fortunate to have been his friend and to have gotten to know him as a person.”
Derrick said Marshall’s wrongful conviction and his court battles over native fishing rights have left a lasting legacy.
“He was not a man who sought fame, which he did acquire. But when the fight came to him he would see it to the finish.”
Marshall’s funeral was attended by judges, MPs, members of the Nova Scotia legislature, Premier Darrell Dexter and Lt.-Gov. Mayann Francis.
Shawn Atleo, chief of the Assembly of First Nations, remembered Marshall as a figure who motivated others.
“I feel so inspired, like so many others, inspired by a man who knew who he was, where he came from, and for what he believed in,” Atleo told the funeral service.
“A man who carried himself in a humble and dignified manner. A man who believed in his people.”
Rev. Donald MacGillivray said Marshall was not embittered by his wrongful conviction.
“Donald, during his years in jail, would have had to be about what he knew to be true, the truth that he was not guilty, his truth had to be his anchor,” he said.
“Donald, I think, can be an example of what it means to stand for truth, perhaps that will be one of his most important legacies, to be able to stand for what one believes to be true.”
Marshall was 17 when he was charged with the violent murder of Sandy Seale, a friend who he met up with while walking through a park in Sydney one night in 1971.
He was sentenced to life in prison but maintained his innocence and was eventually acquitted of the stabbing death in 1983. His case became one of the first high-profile wrongful convictions in the country.
The inquiry that followed produced a seven-volume report that found fault with the police, judges, Marshall’s original defence lawyers, Crown lawyers and bureaucrats.
Roy Ebsary was eventually convicted of manslaughter in Seale’s death and spent a year in jail.
Marshall was one of 13 children of Caroline and Donald Marshall Sr., grand chief of the Mi’kmaq nation.
Later in life, Marshall was arrested and convicted of violating federal fisheries laws for catching 210 kilograms of 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 of the charges.
The ruling also found that natives have the right to make a moderate living by hunting, fishing and gathering.
For Marshall, who led the fight with 13 native chiefs, the case represented a final vindication of native claims that ancient treaties still entitle them to fish, hunt and gather independent of government control.