'Builder of bridges': Mi'kmaq spiritual leader John Joe Sark dies

CHARLOTTETOWN — Prince Edward Island's premier is remembering Mi'kmaq spiritual leader John Joe Sark as a passionate defender of Indigenous culture.

Dennis King paid his respects Tuesday to Sark, who died Sunday at the age of 77.

King described Sark as a "builder of bridges" who worked to teach history and promote respect and understanding between cultures for generations of Islanders.

"I was honoured and proud to call John Joe a friend for many years," he said in a statement. "Through his friendship, he helped to shape my understanding of our shared history and to see our world through wider eyes. I will miss our time together."

Sark's legacy lives on in schools and public institutions that have acknowledged "painful histories" and engaged in reconciliation efforts with Indigenous Peoples, he said.

Lynn Bradley, Indigenous court worker with the Native Council of P.E.I., called Sark a "huge defender of Indigenous rights" who was "full of knowledge, full of teachings and always willing to share."

"He always threw in a splash of humour. He had a sense of humour that was just unmatched," she said.

"It was funny, because he was this profound elder in our communities and he would tell jokes that would just take you off guard, like you wouldn't believe it was coming from him. His sense of humour was just unmatched."

Sark had a bachelor of arts in political science from the University of Prince Edward Island.

He lobbied internationally for rights and recognition as a representative of the Mi’kmaq Council. His various achievements included a meeting with Pope John Paul II about residential schools and drafting the United Nations’ Declaration of Indigenous Peoples of the World. Last fall, Sark wrote "Epekwitk: Stories and Histories of the Mi'kmaq Nation."

He also received the Order of Prince Edward Island only to return it later in principled protest.

Peter Bevan-Baker, leader of the Opposition Green Party, said Prince Edward Island has lost a "great" person.

He will miss Sark's unwavering principled beliefs, his broad smile and deep chuckle, and his friendship, he said in a statement.

"His gentle firmness is something I will carry with me as an example of what it truly means to live with integrity," Bevan-Baker said.

Bradley said one of Sark's many gifts was helping different Indigenous groups understand their identity and roots.

"I'm Mohawk, and he taught me to embrace my culture," she said. "He was a darling man. A darling man. And he was just so inclusive."

The last time she saw Sark was just before Christmas and he seemed in good health and spirits, she said.

"His loss is great. But what he has done in life is greater," Bradley said. "His spirit will live forever, as long as we continue to share what he has taught us and to carry his values and traditions with us."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 10, 2023.

The Canadian Press