Hon. Jane Cordy:
Honourable senators, a few years ago I did a series of speeches in the Senate about influential women from Cape Breton who have contributed so much not only to the people of Cape Breton, but indeed to the people of Canada. One of those strong women whose story I shared was Mi’kmaq elder and spiritual leader Murdena Marie Marshall of Eskasoni. Murdena Marshall had the ability to break down barriers and educate those around her. Unfortunately, Murdena Marshall passed away at her home in Eskasoni First Nation on Sunday, October 21.
Murdena Marshall was born in Whycocomagh, Cape Breton. When she was only eight years old, her mother died while giving birth, leaving her to follow cultural tradition and live with her maternal grandparents. Her grandmother passed away not long after. It was her grandfather, her aunts and her uncles who raised her.
Murdena’s grandfather, the late Gabriel Sylliboy, was the first elected chief of the Mi’kmaq Grand Council. While he could not read, write or speak English, he was adamant that Murdena and all of his grandchildren be formally educated in English, while at the same time remaining immersed in the Mi’kmaq culture and language. Murdena attended school in Eskasoni First Nation, then Catholic middle school in Arichat. For Grades 11 and 12 she moved to Saint Joseph Convent School for Girls in Mabou. However, she left before completing her final year.
After leaving school, Murdena married Albert Marshall and worked as a full-time mother to their six children. In 1978, she lost her young son, Tommy. This deeply affected her and was a large reason why she decided that she wanted to be a teacher. She wished to pursue her quest for knowledge and to serve her Mi’kmaq community.
Murdena graduated in 1984 from the University of New Brunswick with a Bachelor of Education. She furthered her studies at Harvard University, where she earned her master’s degree, also in education. She also earned a certificate from St. Thomas University in Mi’kmaq Immersion.
Murdena worked as an educator in her community before joining the faculty at Cape Breton University. She was instrumental in the development of the Mi’kmaq Studies program. She also had a key role in developing the Integrative Science Academic Program. This program allows students to study both Indigenous and mainstream sciences side-by-side.
In the late 1990s, Murdena retired from teaching, but that did not slow down her community involvement. She remained actively involved in a number of organizations, including the National Aboriginal Health Organization, the Unamak’l Institute of Natural Resources, the Elders’ Advisory Council of Mi’kmawey Debert Cultural Centre, the Native Alcohol and Drug Abuse Counselling Association and the Integrative Science Academic Program at Cape Breton University.
Murdena received the Outstanding Leadership Award from Eskasoni First Nation in 1989 and the National Aboriginal Role Model Award in 1996. In 2006, she was awarded the Grand Chief Donald Marshall Senior Memorial Elder Award.
In 2009, she and her husband Albert received honorary doctorates from Cape Breton University for their efforts to promote Mi’Kmaq culture, cross-cultural understanding, reconciliation and healing.
Honourable senators, Murdena Marshall put her thinking into action. She will be missed.