Ben and Marie Sylliboy came to our door in 1983 shortly after we had moved to the Whycocomagh area.
They were wondering if I would be interested in making a set of kitchen cabinets for them. I was young and still learning the trade but they were willing to take a chance on me. I said, ‘sure, I’ll give it a try.’ Ben and Marie introduced me to many of the folks in Wekoqmaq First Nation and I ended up making kitchen cabinets for several homes in the community.
When they realized that we were beginning a new type of community for people with disabilities that would eventually become L’Arche Cape Breton, they both offered to help. Marie volunteered as treasurer and bookkeeper for our fledgling community. Ben’s sister Theresa volunteered on the board. Ben and his sister Margaret visited often and welcomed us into their homes. Ben’s family were warm and faithful friends to all the folks in L’Arche.
When Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche, came to Whycocomagh in 1986 to lead a retreat with the Mi’kmaq people, Ben, Marie and Margaret stepped up and helped organize that wonderful event. We didn’t have an organizing committee, or a budget, or a plan, but somehow the event grew, and grew, and over 400 Mi’kmaq people came. Somehow, everyone was fed and everyone found a place to stay.
Ben was a very gentle and kind man. He had a real soft spot for people with disabilities and was genuinely concerned for their wellbeing. He looked out for people with disabilities in his community and also for the folks in L’Arche in a very genuine manner.
In 1992 Ben became Grand Chief of the Mi’kmaq nation and L’Arche Cape Breton had a special mass and celebration for him. Ben was concerned about Mi’kmaq people with disabilities and often asked me if we could start a home in We’koqma’q. It wasn’t simple as the systemic barriers were immense, but together, we began to work on all the complex jurisdictional issues that prevented Mi’kmaq people with disabilities from getting residential supports within their own community. Eventually, we were able to start Mawita’mk (Being Together) Society and open a home and supportive apartments within Ben’s cherished community. Mawita’mk has flourished since that time and Ben Sylliboy was a faithful board member, volunteer and friend who seldom missed a meeting or an opportunity to support the cause.
I didn’t know Ben Sylliboy in his role as Grand Chief. I never saw him lead a meeting with the Grand Council or advise the chiefs and politicians. I had the good fortune of being welcomed by his warm loving family who simply knew him as Uncle Ben or Dad.
Ben Sylliboy was a very good man and we will miss him dearly.