Great-great-grandsons of last Mi’kmaw hereditary chief to give presentation about him in Halifax

Trevor Sanipass holds up a photo of his great-great-grandfather, Mi'kmaq Grand Chief John Denny, Jr./Photo by Stephen Brake

Trevor Sanipass wants everyone to know about John Denny, Jr., the last hereditary Grand Chief of the Mi’kmaq Grand Council who is also happens to be his great-great-grandfather.

“He was a devoted father and negotiator. He was politically and spiritually versed,” Sanipass said during an interview from his home in Lower Sackville, N.S.

Sanipass, who is originally from the Eskasoni First Nation, N.S., will join his cousin, John R. Sylliboy at the Halifax Central Library Thursday evening to give a public presentation about their direct ancestor.

The presentation, which is being sponsored by Treaty Education Nova Scotia, is the result of Sanipass’s extensive research about Grand Chief Denny. He conducted dozens of interviews with relatives and Mi’kmaw elders, including the late Mi’kmaq Grand Chief Ben Sylliboy before he passed away.

“It was really important for myself, my mother and for my family,” Sanipass explained. “I always heard stories of who he was but now it’s going to be shared to Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people,” he said.

The last of the Mi’kmaw hereditary chiefs

Mi’kmaq Grand Chief John Denny, Jr. was born in 1841 in Eskasoni First Nation. The Mi’kmaw leader came from a long line of hereditary chiefs with the Mi’kmaq Grand Council, the traditional government of the Mi’kmaw people.

Mi’kmaq Grand Chief John Denny, Jr. was 77 when he died in 1918.

While conducting his research, Sanipass learned his great-great-grandfather spoke several languages such as Mi’kmaq, Peskotomukati, English, French and Gaelic.

According to Sanipass, Grand Chief Denny petitioned the federal government in February 1885 on behalf of “an elderly Mi’kmaw man who had been ousted by a farmer from lands in PEI.”

“He travelled from Cape Breton to Prince Edward Island and then sent letters to Ottawa but yet, it must have been frustrating as well (knowing) nothing would happen,” Sanipass said.

“It must have been quite difficult to try to argue for your rights given that the Indian Act was dangling over them,” he added.

“I picture him as my superhero” – Trevor Sanipass

When Grand Chief Denny died on April 12, 1918, at the age of 77, the tradition of passing along his title to his son ended.

According to Sanipass, Grand Chief Denny faced pressure from the federal government to adopt an electoral system in choosing the members of the Mi’kmaq Grand Council. At first, Denny rejected the idea but before he passed away, “he agreed to pass on the title through the electoral system,” Sanipass explained.

“Hence, we had Gabriel Sylliboy as the first elected Grand Chief at that time,” Sanipass said.

Trevor Sanipass/Photo by Stephen Brake

Learning that he is a direct descendant of hereditary Mi’kmaw grand chiefs has given Sanipass a sense of pride in his own Mi’kmaw identity and leadership qualities. In the 2017 Nova Scotia provincial election, Sanipass ran as the NDP candidate in the riding of Waverley-Fall River-Beaverbank.

“I picture him as my superhero,” Sanipass said.

Following the presentation Thursday evening, Mi’kmaw artist Alan Syliboy will present a portrait of Grand Chief Denny to Sanipass and other family members.

Sanipass is considering turning his presentation into a feature video profiling his great-great grandfather’s life. He is also thinking about writing a book about him.

“I need to really kick it up in gear and start introducing him to the people,” Sanipass said.

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About Maureen Googoo 270 Articles
Maureen Googoo is an award-winning journalist from Indian Brook First Nation (Sipekne'katik) in Nova Scotia. She has worked in news more than 30 years for media outlets such as CBC Radio, the Chronicle-Herald and the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network. Maureen has an arts degree in political science from Saint Mary's University in Halifax, a journalism degree from Ryerson University in Toronto and a Masters degree in journalism from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York City.