Cree leader Elijah Harper was to be laid to rest on Thursday morning, May 23, at the reserve where it all began, after hundreds lined up to pay respects earlier in the week as Harper lay in state at the Manitoba Legislative Building.
Meanwhile, thousands of miles away at the 12th session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, Grand Chief Edward John opened the meeting with a tribute to the leader, who was felled on Friday May 18 at age 64 by cardiac complications related to diabetes. (Related: Elijah Harper, Iconic Aboriginal Leader Who Scuttled Meech Accord, Walks On)
“In our lifetime there are those few who touch our hearts and minds in profound ways,” John said in a statement. “Today, as he is being laid to rest, I wish to acknowledge the passing of Elijah Harper, a distinguished and respected Indigenous leader and parliamentarian in Canada. We extend our deepest condolence to his family and friends.”
John went on to relate the history of the Red Sucker Lake First Nation former chief, who first survived the residential school system, then went on to be elected to the Manitoba Legislative Assembly and then, Parliament.
A funeral service was held for the legendary leader on Monday evening after people flooded the legislative building to bid farewell. A Manitoba flag was draped over Harper's open casket, and an eagle-feather headdress had been placed on top. Portraits of the iconic leader were placed nearby in which he was holding an eagle feather. (Related: Elijah Harper Lies in State at Manitoba Legislature)
From the other side of Turtle Island, John recounted the watershed moment in history that brought Harper—and aboriginals—to national prominence.
“He will be remembered for that moment when he took a stand, with an eagle feather in his hand, in the Manitoba Legislature in 1990 as the lone voice to vote against the Meech Lake Accord, which proposed amendments to Canada's constitution but which ignored Indigenous Peoples rights,” John aid in his statement. “With this decisive action he stopped the amendment from proceeding which already had the political support from the federal and provincial leaders and governments.”
Harper’s reason: “In his quiet and humble way, he said, ‘I stalled and killed it because I didn't think it offered anything to the aboriginal people,’ ” John continued. “His stand helped propel indigenous issues to the top of Canada's political agenda and into the public consciousness of Canadians.”
Harper was known for uttering the simple word "no" repeatedly at that infamous voting session. But it was merely an example of the underlying spirit that guided him, wrote Don Marks, a Canadian writer and a close friend of Harper.
"Elijah Harper is most famous for saying that one word and changing the course of Canadian history," Marks wrote in the Winnipeg Free Press. "And for far too many people, this is all that Elijah will be known for. But for those of us who learned early on to listen more closely, this man, who was raised by his grandparents on a trapline in northern Manitoba, was one of the most eloquent, in large part by being succinct, political spokespersons of all time; white, red, yellow or black."
Condolences poured in from around the country, and about 700 people attended his funeral on the evening of May 20. The official burial service was to be held on Thursday morning, May 23, at the Full Gospel Church in Red Sucker Lake.
Harper’s daughter, Holly Harper, told CBC News she was overwhelmed by all the support.
"To see all the people, just not aboriginal, but the non-natives as well. And all the different people that are coming. It's great to see," she told the network.
"He was my support. He was my rock," she said. "We have a lot to live up to."
Back at the United Nations, John’s closing words echoed hundreds of well-wishers, including many inspired by his deeds: “Today we bow our heads in gratitude.”