Kji-keptin Alexander Denny was a born leader; he was an inspiration, a role model and a prominent figure in the ongoing fight for Mi’kmaw Rights. Mr. Denny dedicated his life to bringing to light issues that the Mi’kmaw nation face, working towards finding and implementing solutions, and thus playing a key role in building the Mi’kmaw nation as we know it today. He was a man with great vision and an unfailing determination, who believed unwaveringly that the Mi’kmaw language was key to his nation’s prosperity.
Alex Denny was born on July 26, 1940 to a young Eskasoni woman, Susie Johnson. However, she would not be the woman Alexander grew to call his mother. Instead, Alexander was raised by an elderly couple in the community, Mrs. Mary Anne Denny and her husband Andrew who took him in as their own, an act that would ultimately set the foundation for the years of success and triumph that lay before Alexander.
Being raised by elders of the community gave Alexander a view of life that most children his age did not have the privilege of observing. As a small boy his father would tell him bed time stories about the treaties and traditions of the Mi’kmaw people. His father instilled the importance of the Mi’kmaw treaties in him and from a very young age Alexander was surrounded by many elders sharing their knowledge, prayers and traditions. Alex spent hours learning of the things most sacred to the Mi’kmaw people and because of that, these things then became sacred to him. For Alex, everyday was a learning experience and his father made sure that if he knew one thing it would be the importance of being educated and helping your people. It was this knowledge and these experiences, all acquired before his teenage years, that would fuel the fire for change inside the well loved and respected man in his adult years.
At the young age of 14 Alexander left Eskasoni to attend boarding school in Chatham, New Brunswick; at a time when the Eskasoni day school only went to the eighth grade. After leaving New Brunswick he then attended St. Dunstan’s High School in PEI where he received the Tom Longboat Award, a prestigious award honouring the great Canadian Aboriginal runner Tom Longboat that is given out annually to the top Aboriginal athletes and sportsmen in the Country. Alexander was always an avid sportsman and excelled in many sports from football, to baseball, basketball and hockey. In grade eleven however, Alexander left high school in PEI to return home and be with his ill father. He would later go back to school and earn his GED before attending business school.
On January 27, 1962 the 21 year old married his long time neighbour and childhood sweetheart, Janet. Over the next several years they had 5 beautiful children; sons Andrew, Keenan and Simon and daughters Anne and Kelly. Growing up Alexander’s children were taught the importance of Mi’kmaw history and the traditions that he had learned from his father as a child. Bedtime stories for the five little ones were often filled with tales of treaties, language and prayers. Mr. Denny was an avid believer in children growing up with one parent at home, nurturing and providing stability to them; teaching then the culture and language of their people. Even when the Mi’kmaw language was strong, Alexander preached the importance of keeping it alive; he would say if we lose our language we have nowhere to go back to; where the Spanish have Spain and the French have France, here is all we have. For Alexander there were few things more important then insuring his children were raised as Mi’kmaq speakers and spoke only the language in their home.
In 1966, Alex Denny was appointed the lifelong role of Kji-keptin of the Sante’Mawiomi or Grand Captain of the Grand Council, an extremely honourable achievement. He was chosen for this role by the elders at the time, who recognized the young mans dedication to his people; they were impressed by his contributions to the community and saw great success in his future. Shortly there after, in 1969, he joined forces with Joe B. Marshall, Noel Doucette, Greg Johnson and Stan Johnson and together they formed the Union of Nova Scotia Indians (UNSI), where he served two separate terms as president, 1974-1976 and 1992-1995. The goal of the UNSI was to provide one united voice which would represent the Mi’kmaw on the political table both provincially and federally. Over the years, Alexander continued to share the stories of the treaties his father had told him about as a child, positive his father spoke only the truth to him and therefore the treaties must in fact exist. The UNSI began to research these treaties and over the next two decades, Alexander and the UNSI worked to sustain the original Treaty of 1752 between the Mi’kmaw people and the British Monarchy. In 1985, their hard work paid off when the Supreme Court of Canada confirmed the validity of the treaty and October 1st was declared Treaty Day.
October 1, 1986 marked the very first Treaty Day celebration in Nova Scotia and it was Kji-keptin Alexander Denny who addressed the Nova Scotia Legislative Assembly, reaffirming the Mi’kmaw treaties with the crown. Every year there after, until his passing in 2004, Mr. Denny made this address and each year, as he spoke in the Mi’kmaw language, he reminded listeners of the strength the language held and its vitality which must be respected and passed on to future generations.
In his 1998 Treaty Address, Kji-keptin Denny’s opening lines truly embodied what he stood for and his belief in the Mi’kmaw Rights and culture. He said, “As ridiculous as it may sound, one thing seems certain to me: that it is my responsibility to emphasize again and again, first, the treaty origin of all genuine Mi’kmaq politics. Second, to stress the significance of our cultural values and standards in all spheres of Mi’kmaq life, including economics, and third, to explain that if we don’t try, within ourselves, to discover or rediscover or cultivate our knowledge and heritage things will turn out very badly for our children, our people and our nation.”
Alexander Denny, in his role as Kji-keptin of the Sante’Mawiomi, focused on fighting for Mi’kmaw language and land rights. In the 1980’s, he took this fight all the way to the United Nations to ensure the Language and Treaty Rights of the Mi’kmaw people were recognized at an international level. As a result, the Mi’kmaq nation, under the leadership of the UNSI and the oratorical skills of Alex Denny, was the first Aboriginal nation to have its linguistic and political rights recognized by the United Nations.
If you speak with anyone whom had the pleasure of being acquainted with the late Alexander Denny, they will tell you this, the legacy he has left behind is one of education and language preservation. Throughout the incredible work he took on in his life and with every achievement he made, Mr. Denny continued to stress the importance of educating the Mi’kmaw youth through cultural teachings and academic teachings as well as preserving the Mi’kmaw language and passing it down to the future generations. In the 1980’s, Alex fought for more support for the Mi’kmaw students attending Cape Breton University (then known as the University College of Cape Breton) and during the 1990’s was one of the driving forces behind the establishment of the Mi’kmaq Resource Centre of CBU. Later, it was Alex Denny again who helped develop the vision of creating a Mi’kmaq college institute which is now known as the Unama’ki College of Cape Breton University.
He was a kind man with a large heart and a great sense of humour. Alexander believed in treating every individual equally and with the utmost respect. He was a great philosopher and believed fully that if you share your food you will never go hungry and if you share your wealth you will never go poor, a concept he demonstrated every day of his life, welcoming everyone into his home and helping those facing rough times. Alexander was a business man all his life, running businesses such as Eskasoni Building Supply, a Christmas wreath and tree business which supplied to New England states and Uncle Alex’s Take-Out and Catering. His primary passion was the Mi’kmaw people though and Alex believed that when you work for your people there is no timeline, you work until the work is done and that usually didn’t fit into the hours of a 9-5 day job. He would be proud to see his family carrying on with his legacy today, with every new child brought into the family fluently speaking the Mi’kmaw language.
Kji-keptin Alex Denny dedicated his life to instilling the importance of Mi’kmaq teachings, beliefs and culture in his people, with great emphases on the importance of the Mi’kmaq language and passing it on to future generations. For more then 35 years, Alex addressed the Mi’kmaw people at the St. Anne’s Mission held annually at Chapel Island, like Kji-keptins before him he spoke about the goals and future of the Mi’kmaw Nations. Every year, as he spoke in the Mi’kmaw language himself, he would stress the importance of keeping that language alive, the importance of being proud, passing the language down to your children, speaking it in the home and never letting it fade away. Though he was not alone in fighting for Mi’kmaw language rights and reinforcing the languages importance to the Mi’kmaw Culture, his position as Kji-keptin of the Grand Council and his powerful presence as a spokesperson for the Mi’kmaw Nation kept the issue one of importance on the political agenda.