Considering the Marshall Commission's legacy

- April 9, 2018

The panel at last week's Marshall Commission event. (Molly Marcott photo)
The panel at last week's Marshall Commission event. (Molly Marcott photo)

Nearly 50 years ago, Donald Marshall Jr. of the Membertou First Nation community, was wrongfully convicted for the murder of Sandy Seale, a Black Nova Scotian.

The case brought light to the systemic racism present in the Canadian Criminal Justice System and sparked community-driven change toward justice.

In 1989, the Marshall Commission was formed with the aim of improving representation of Black and Indigenous issues in the court system.  Now-retired Dalhousie professor Donald Clairmont served on this commission, bringing the impact of academics into the conversation.

“Don’s research was integral to the Marshall Report,” said L. Jane McMillan, Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Peoples and Sustainable Communities. “Marshall and Clairmont wanted to ensure no one would ever be wrongfully imprisoned again and it remains a great pleasure to continue his work.”

Paving the way

Dr. McMillan was one of six panelists at a Dal 200 event last Wednesday evening (April 4), reflecting on Dr. Clairmont’s contribution and highlighting issues of justice in sociology and social anthropology for Black and Mi’kmaq Nova Scotians.

She was joined by Dal faculty members Afua Cooper (outgoing James R. Johnston Chair in Black Canadian Studies) Michelle Williams (director, Indigenous Blacks & Mi’kmaq Initiative, Schulich School of Law) and Diana Lewis (coordinator, Indigenous Studies program). Together with Pictou Landing First Nation Director of Education Sheila Francis and African Nova Scotian leader and activist Lynn Jones, they discussed how far we have come and what is still left to do to move toward reconciliation.

At the recommendation of the Marshall Commission, Dalhousie sought to address racism in the justice system through the establishment of the Indigenous Blacks and Mi’kmaq (IB&M) Initiative at the Schulich School of Law. The program aims to reduce structural racism by increasing representation in the legal profession.

 “The Marshall Commission was built on the sacrifices others made. These efforts paved the way for the IB&M initiative,” said Prof. Williams, current director of the initiative.

Before the IB&M was established in 1989, not one Mi’kmaq lawyer came through Dalhousie. Now, as Dalhousie celebrates its 200th anniversary, the IB&M Initiative is set to celebrate its 200th graduate from the program.

“It’s very hard to understate the impact of this program. Our alumni work as a collective network tackling systemic issues, and are a point of access to the community,” said Prof. Williams, reflecting on the success of the program. “But despite our successes, we need to continue to work. The needs are greater now than ever.”

Racism and reflection

Echoing her sentiment were Diana Lewis and Sheila Francis, both members of the Pictou Landing Native Women’s Association.The pair is involved in a research study on the health impacts of the pollution in “Boat Harbour” and work to share the story of A’se’k.

“A’se’k was where people went to eat, to socialize. But after 1965, it became what it is now,” said Francis. She showed pictures of water turning from clear to brown, and astonishing loss of biodiversity.

“Boat Harbour was created from racism and discrimination. It’s not just the loss of water, it’s the loss of a lifestyle for our people.”

The pair told their story to a room with open ears, but it was not until recently that they were able to do so.

“No one wanted to hear our story,” said Francis, shining light on the racism and denial still in place today.

A’se’k is just one example of the work that needs to be done.

“Many of the Marshall Commission’s recommendations have yet to be implemented,” said Prof. Williams. “There are no specific restorative justice programs. Black and Indigenous peoples are still overrepresented in the criminal justice system.”

Dr. McMillan continued with a call to action. “If we as settlers are to have some hope at building relationships, racist intolerance at all levels must come down.”


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