Elections 2012: A Native Legislator Saves Canada

How much political power does one person have? Well, one Native legislator’s vote forced Canada to consider indigenous rights during its debate over its constitution.

Edna Brillon, an Indian Country Today Media Network reader, pointed out on Facebook (in regard to the story on a Native American coalition defeating Slade Gorton) that Elijah Harper had, in fact, saved Canada. I immediately smiled because this is a great story.

In the early 1980s Canada was trying to figure out what kind of role Quebec would have as Canada brought its constitution home from London. A deal was struck called the Meech Lake Accord. Even Queen Elizabeth got into the debate, giving her personal support for the Accord. However many in Quebec opposed the deal and that province could have left Canada had it passed. The Accord also required approval from provincial legislatures.

The Manitoba Legislative Assembly needed unanimous consent to debate because the bill came up at the last possible moment. Elijah Harper, a former Cree tribal leader and a member of the assembly, raised an eagle feather as he voted no. He said Canada’s First Nations must be a part of the process, not just an after thought. A day later Newfoundland pulled the Accord from their legislative agenda and the measure was officially dead. And, of course, Quebec remains a part of Canada.

I was lucky enough to be on a small reserve in Ontario that night. I arrived at a community event and people were still talking about that night's keynote speaker, Elijah Harper. It was a celebration all around. The cheers and shouts of victory are still heard across many borders.

“Hardly any Canadians will acknowledge that a Native person saved the country from separating,” writes Brillon. "The U.S. won't believe it at all.”

Mark Trahant is a writer, speaker and Twitter poet. He is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes and lives in Fort Hall, Idaho. He has been writing about Indian Country for more than three decades. His e-mail is: marktrahant@thecedarsgroup.org.