Cape Breton Women Series: Murdena Marshall


October 27th, 2011

Hon. Jane Cordy: Honourable senators, when I last spoke to you about Cape Breton women I spoke about Ruth Goldbloom and her incredible work helping those who come from elsewhere to navigate the waters and settle into their new home, their new world. But what if the two worlds one must navigate are both found within one place? My next story is about a woman's ability to do just that. It is her ability to break down barriers and educate those around her that distinguishes her as an influential Cape Breton woman.

Murdena Marshall is a well-known Mi'kmaq Elder and spiritual leader who was born in Whycocomagh, Cape Breton. When she was only eight years old, her mother died in childbirth, leaving her to follow the cultural tradition and to go and live with her maternal grandparents. Shortly after, her grandmother passed away, and so 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 his grandchildren be formally educated in English while at the same time remain immersed in the Mi'kmaq culture and language. Murdena attended Indian Day School in Eskasoni First Nation, where she still resides today. She then moved to Catholic middle school in Arichat for Grades 9 and 10, and for Grades 11 and 12 she moved on to Saint Joseph's Residential 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 wife and 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 teach. She wished to pursue her quest for knowledge and to serve her Mi'kmaq community.

Murdena took courses from the Nova Scotia Teacher's College in Truro. She 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 has a certificate from St. Thomas University in Mi'kmaq Immersion. Murdena worked as an educator in her community for a period before joining the faculty at Cape Breton University. She has been instrumental in the development of the Mi'kmaq Studies program at Cape Breton University. She also had a key role in developing the Integrative Science program. This program allows students to study both indigenous and mainstream sciences side by side.

In the late 1990s, Murdena retired from teaching at Cape Breton University, but, like the other role models on my list, that in no way slowed down her community involvement. She remains actively involved in a number of organizations, including the National Aboriginal Health Organization, the Unamak'l Institute of Natural Resources, the Elders' Advisory Group of Mi'kmawey Debert Cultural Centre, the Native Alcohol and Drug Abuse Counselling Association, and the Integrative Science program at Cape Breton University. In addition, she organizes workshops throughout Atlantic Canada. 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.

The knowledge and expertise that Murdena imparts as an animated speaker at both national and international conferences are invaluable. She demonstrates through her stories the unique understanding and wisdom the Mi'kmaq people have of the world around us.

Honourable senators, Murdena Marshall not only is a master of what she does, but she puts her thinking into action. She is a strong Cape Breton woman.

Honourable senators, I look forward to continuing to share with you the stories of Cape Breton women who have made such a positive impact on the lives around them.