SYDNEY, N.S. — The lasting legacy of Donald Marshall Jr. is the subject of a new book by his former partner, anthropologist Jane McMillan.
“Really it was about honouring his legacy, but at its heart it’s sort of a love story,” said McMillan, a professor at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish.
In a relationship with Marshall for 13 years, McMillan met the exonerated man in 1991, at a Halifax cabaret.
At the time, she was a young university student who had just finished watching a film about Marshall’s life.
She said their encounter that night sparked an immediate connection.
“He asked me my name. I said, ‘it’s Jane’ and he said, ‘Oh I’m Tarzan’ and that was really it,” McMillan said in a recent telephone interview.
“The rest of it was history. After that, my life changed dramatically from that moment on.”
Marshall was born in Membertou as the eldest of 13 children. He was destined to assume the role of hereditary chief of the Mi’kmaw Nation, when in 1971, at the age of 17, he was wrongly convicted of murder.
McMillan said her book recalls how one man’s fight against racism and injustice transformed the criminal justice system and galvanized the Mi’kmaw nation’s struggle for self-determination.
McMillan said her experience with Marshall also helped guide her toward a doctoral degree in anthropology, which she earned in 2003 from the University of British Columbia.
“I wanted to really capture the complexity of his life and the story in the hopes of portraying the huge systemic challenges that Indigenous people face within our justice system and their amazing resilience to overcome that oppression,” she said.
Marshall had met teenaged acquaintance Sandy Seale by chance at Wentworth Park in Sydney on the evening of May 28, 1971.
The pair would soon encounter two older men. After a brief exchange with the boys, one of the strangers pulled a knife from his cloak and stabbed Seale in the abdomen before running away. Seale, who was also 17 at the time, would die from his injuries.
Although he maintained his innocence throughout, Marshall became the victim of a bungled investigation resulting from police tunnel vision.
Prior to his arrest, Marshall was already on the radar of the former Sydney City Police.
Throughout his 11 years spent in jail, Marshall consistently maintained his innocence in Seale’s death. But his unwillingness to come to terms with the crime was instead viewed as a moral failing.
McMillan’s book features many old photographs of Marshall, including his prisoner mugshots.
There are also poems and letters he wrote while serving time in prison.
It wasn’t until the stars aligned that Marshall would learn the name of the real killer.
Upon his acquittal in 1983, an appeal court would refer to Marshall as “the author of his own misfortune.”
In response to public outcry, a Royal Commission report was published vindicating Marshall and uncovering a justice system rife with racism, incompetence and miscarriages of justice at every turn.
Four years after the report’s publication, Marshall would again face legal troubles for fishing eels without a licence. McMillan was with the man she affectionately calls J.R. on that fateful day.
The challenge would eventually wind its way to the Supreme Court and subsequently vindicated Indigenous treaty rights through the landmark Marshall decision.
“That was such a stressful experience for him because he recognized that his was much less of an individual fight, this was very much a nationhood matter and it would impact so many more people,” said McMillan.
By about 2000, Marshall’s health was beginning to fail. He would receive a double lung transplant three years later to help him survive.
McMillan said writing a book was always something Marshall himself had wished to complete before his death.
Marshall would live for six more years, but finally succumbed to complications from the transplant in August 2009. He was 55.
As part of Marshall’s legacy, there are now justice programs grounded in customary Mi’kmaw laws and practices.
One such programs is the Donald Marshall Jr. Centre for Justice and Reconciliation, which opened last April in Wagmatcook. Its opening marked the first time a superior court would be holding regular sittings in a First Nations community in Canada.