SYDNEY, N.S. – Several hundred mourners gathered Monday to remember the life of Donald Marshall, the man whose wrongful murder conviction uncovered glaring problems in Nova Scotia’s justice system.
Marshall died last week in hospital after complications linked to a double lung transplant six years ago. He was 55.
Shawn Atleo brought condolences from the Assembly of First Nations and remembered Marshall as a man who loved to fish and fought for native rights.
“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,” said Atleo, chief of the assembly.
“A man who carried himself in a humble and dignified manner. A man who believed in his people.”
Marshall 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 led to a royal commission that brought sweeping changes to a justice system found to be plagued by incompetence and racism.
Marshall’s funeral on an overcast day at St. Anthony Daniel Roman Catholic Church in Sydney was attended by judges, MPs, members of the Nova Scotia legislature, Premier Darrell Dexter and Lt.-Gov. Mayann Francis.
Marshall, a Mi’kmaq, was 17 when he was charged with the violent murder of a friend, Sandy Seale, 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 and led to a royal commission that brought sweeping changes to the justice system.
The inquiry put the Nova Scotia justice system under intense scrutiny and produced a seven-volume report that pointed the finger at police, judges, Marshall’s original defence lawyers, Crown lawyers and bureaucrats.
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.
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, a decision that had the potential to fundamentally recast native access to natural resources.
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.