Gilbert Sewell, a Mi’kmaw elder known for his dedication to language instruction, has died.
He was 81.
Sewell, from Pabineau First Nation, was a storyteller, woodcarver, guide and oral historian. He taught courses designed to teach young Mi’kmaq their native language.
His family confirmed his death on Sunday.
“My father passed into the spirit world this morning,” his daughter Phyllis Grant said in a social media post Sunday.
“He was born at home and died at home surrounded by family. It was so peaceful. He was happy. I feel joy for the life he lived and the love and knowledge he shared with so many.”
Throughout his life, Sewell received recognition for his commitment to sharing and teaching others about his Mi’kmaw heritage. He was named a recipient of the New Brunswick Human Rights Award, the Canadian Merit Award and the Queen’s Jubilee Medal from the Province of New Brunswick.
Graydon Nicholas, New Brunswick’s former Lieutenant-Governor, from Tobique First Nation, said he had a phone conversation with Sewell Thursday night.
“I said … our prayers are going to be with you. I know this is difficult for you and for your family, but be assured that my wife and I will be praying for all of you,” Nicholas said.
He said he’s known Sewell since the ’70s. They worked together when Sewell was a representative for the Pabineau First Nation, before the first nation had a chief and council.
“People would come and talk to him and then he would have a full representation of the needs of the community. That’s what I admired about him from the very beginning,” Nicholas said.
Sewell’s sense of humour was also valued, Nicholas said.
“Sometimes discussions in indigenous politics can be very, very serious,” he said.
“He had that ability to, I guess, say, ‘OK, let’s have something funny here to loosen up the seriousness of the situation.’ And we would all laugh, break into a little bit of a break and come back and have another discussion.”
Sewell presented his work to dignitaries, including Pope John Paul II, Prince Charles, Lady Diana, and the Consul of France, and was featured on the Discovery Channel, APTN and CBC television.
He wrote columns about Mi’kmaw culture for the Northern Light in Bathurst and the Miramichi Leader, and hosted a series of vignettes for Rogers television.
He also served as an expert witness in many Indigenous rights court cases, offering his knowledge of the Mi’kmaq.
Sewell was committed to environmental preservation, and worked to evaluate traditional lands, including Youghall Beach in Bathurst and the Skull Island excavation project in Shediac Bay.
More recently, he worked with schools in the Bathurst area to organize Mi’kmaw cultural events and activities in both English and French for students from primary to Grade 12.
He also served as liaison between the school district and the Pabineau First Nation community.
Nicholas said Sewell’s teachings have helped preserve the Mi’kmaq language for generations to come.
“His knowledge is going to live on,” Nicholas said.