SYDNEY, N.S. — The Mi’kmaq nation in Cape Breton and beyond is in mourning following the death of its spiritual leader and head of state.
Mi’kmaq Grand Council Grand Chief Ben Sylliboy of Waycobah First Nation died Thursday afternoon at the Cape Breton Regional Hospital with his family and friends by his side. He was 76.
Waycobah Chief Rod Googoo called Sylliboy a close friend and mentor. The two first began working together in the 1970s when they both served as band councillors in Waycobah.
Sylliboy and his wife Marie are also his youngest daughter’s godparents.
“It’s a tremendous loss to the Mi’kmaq nation — he was our grand chief. It leaves a big void. When we talk about the Mi’kmaq nation, we’re talking all the way from Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, P.E.I., Newfoundland and parts of Maine,” Googoo told the Cape Breton Post.
“The grand chief is the figurehead for our nation — I guess you can compare him to being the Dalai Lama.”
Eskasoni Chief Leroy Denny was with Sylliboy when he died. He said Sylliboy and his late father Walter Denny were best friends and both served as Mi’kmaq Grand Council captains.
Denny described Sylliboy as being “very patient and a great listener.”
“He was a dear friend of mine and my heart is broken — he was like an uncle to me,” said Denny. “As a friend he would call me in the mornings. If something was going on in Eskasoni, he would call, or if somebody died, he would call. Hockey season — he was a Habs fan, and he would pick on people, other hockey fans. He was a dear friend.”
There were no funeral arrangements for Sylliboy on Thursday, but Denny said the Mi’kmaq nation will mourn for a year.
“We’re going to see a number of people coming in to pay their respects. He was our leader.”
Sylliboy is survived by his wife Marie and daughters Michelle and Christina.
Born in Waycobah on March 2, 1941, Sylliboy was sent to the Indian Residential School in Shubenacadie, N.S., where he stayed for four years. His community choose him as their keptin, or hereditary chief in 1968, and in 1970 he was elected as a band councillor, serving nine terms.
In 1991, then-Grand Chief Donald Marshall Sr. of Membertou, who died later that year, asked Sylliboy to step in as interim grand chief, a role he served until his death.