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Remembering Iconic Leader Elijah Harper, Two Years On

It was two years ago this week that Elijah Harper, an Ojibwa-Cree who was destined to sway Canadian history, walked on.

The iconic leader was born on March 3, 1949, in Red Sucker Lake, a reserve in northern Manitoba. He learned to speak Cree and to trap, but like many aboriginal children of his generation, he was removed from his family at a young age and educated at residential schools.

Harper’s introduction to Native politics came while he attended the University of Manitoba in 1971 and 1972, where he became friends with two future Assembly of First Nations chiefs. Harper left the university and became a community development worker and researcher for the Manitoba Indian Brotherhood. He later served as a program analyst for the Department of Northern Affairs.

His political career began in 1978, when he was elected chief of the Red Sucker First Nation. After four years he entered provincial politics and was elected to the Manitoba legislature. He stayed in office from 1981 until 1992 and was a strong proponent of Native rights and held cabinet posts as Minister of Northern Affairs and Minister responsible for Native Affairs.

In June, 1990, Harper became an overnight celebrity when he singlehandedly stopped the passage of a key constitutional amendment. When Canada’s constitution had been repatriated from Great Britain in 1982, Quebec had been the only province not to sign it. The Meech Lake Accord was negotiated in 1990 to gain Quebec’s approval. However, because the amendment, which recognized Quebec as a ‘distinct society,’ did not recognize First Nations—nor were they even consulted—Harper repeatedly refused to give the unanimous vote in the Manitoba legislature that was required. Few images from the constitutional battles of the 1980s and 90s are as memorable as that of Harper, his black hair pulled back in a ponytail, sitting in the Manitoba Legislature holding an eagle feather aloft each time he chimed out, “No.” As a result, the Meech Lake Accord failed, and Quebec has to this day not signed the 1982 Constitution.

Although Harper greatly furthered Native political influence and prominence both in Manitoba and nationally, he was basically shy.

“I don’t like this notoriety,” he told former Manitoba premier Howard Pawley in the midst of the deliberations. “I am looking forward to getting back to the trap line and looking at the stars at night.”

Canada’s then Prime Minister Brian Mulroney was livid that his prized accord had failed, and blamed “Elijah Harper’s stupidity.”

“When he says I’m stupid, he calls our people stupid,” Harper replied. “We’re not stupid. We’re the First Nations people. We’re the very people who welcomed his ancestors to this country, and he didn’t want to recognize us in the Constitution.”

Harper was voted Newsmaker of the Year in Canada by the Canadian Press in 1990. Three years later, Harper entered federal politics and was elected the Liberal candidate for Churchill, Manitoba; he represented that riding until 1997. In 1999 he was appointed a commissioner of the Indian Claims Commission. He continued to support initiatives to improve the lives of First Nations peoples and was involved in humanitarian and charitable causes.

For his work for his people, Harper received many accolades, including the Stanley Knowles Humanitarian Award in 1991, and a National Aboriginal Achievement Award in 1996. A film titled Elijah, based on Harper’s life and focusing on how he blocked the Meech Lake Accord, was produced in 2007. He remained in demand as a speaker until his death.

Harper died two years ago at age 64 in Ottawa on May 17, 2013, from cardiac failure due to complications from diabetes. On May 20, 2013, Harper's open casket was draped with the flag of Manitoba as he lay in state in the Winnipeg legislature where hundreds of supporters paid their respects. Harper was buried at Red Sucker Lake First Nation. He left his wife, Anita Olsen Harper, children Bruce and Holly, stepchildren Karen Lawford, Dylan, Gaylen and Grant Bokvist.

Oh he was a tremendous father, a great person,” said daughter Holly Harper in this tribute from his funeral. “I was very lucky to be his daughter. The Creator picked me to be his daughter.”

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