Not since Louis Riel in the late 19th century had a person of aboriginal descent had such an impact on Canadian history. Except in mid-June, 1990, Elijah Harper, a 40-year-old Ojibwa-Cree and Manitoba MLA, made his bold stand peacefully, though defiantly, holding an eagle feather.
In his opposition to the Meech Lake Accord, which included Quebec’s five demands before it would sign the Constitution of 1982, Mr. Harper became an instant media sensation. He was the Canadian Press newsmaker of 1990 and the subject of hundreds of newspaper and television stories and commentaries. He became an overnight celebrity, and people started wearing T-shirts with his photograph on them and badges that proclaimed, “Elijah Harper for Prime Minister.” A CTV movie, Elijah , was even made about him in 2007.
For Mr. Harper, however, his refusal to support the accord was always much more than a quest for his 15 minutes of fame. Indeed, he did not even want it. “I don’t like this notoriety,” he told former Manitoba NDP premier Howard Pawley in the midst of the deliberations. “I am looking forward to getting back to the trapline and looking at the stars at night.”
Nonetheless, few images from the constitutional battles of the 1980s and 90s are as memorable as that of Mr. Harper, with his long black hair pulled back in a ponytail sitting in the Manitoba Legislature with an eagle feather in his hand refusing to give his consent so that Manitoba premier Gary Filmon could introduce a motion to ratify the accord by the June 23, 1990, deadline.
As Mr. Filmon recalls, Mr. Harper spoke to him before the crucial session began. “I don’t want to do this,” he told Mr. Filmon, “but I have to do it for my people.” Added Jack London, who was at the time the legal counsel for the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs (AMC): “The emotional toll on Elijah was immense. But he did not take his decision lightly or without considerable thoughtfulness.”
Mr. Filmon, head of a Conservative minority government, required unanimous consent from all MLAs to introduce the motion for debate, which was to be followed by 10 days of public hearings. It was going to be close to meet the deadline. Yet eight times between June 12 and June 21, on each occasion that the Speaker asked if there was unanimity to proceed, Mr. Harper said, “No, Mr. Speaker.”
Roy MacGregor, now with The Globe and Mail, was the only journalist invited by Phil Fontaine of the AMC to the hotel suite where Mr. Harper was resting before the final session. “It was a remarkable experience,” Mr. MacGregor writes in his 2007 book, Canadians: A Portrait of a Country and its People . “The man who – some were saying – held the very future of his country in his hands, was holding, instead, the feather of a bird, periodically spinning it. He sat, for the most part, quietly, though the large room was anything but quiet.”
The next day, the Manitoba legislature adjourned without voting on the accord, essentially killing it (a deed completed when, soon after, Newfoundland premier Clyde Wells refused to allow a vote on the accord).
In Ottawa, prime minister Brian Mulroney was naturally livid that a technicality could derail his prized accord. Later, in one of Mr. Mulroney’s unguarded conversations with Peter C. Newman, he put it like this, “Aboriginals are not to blame for Meech Lake’s failure despite Elijah Harper’s stupidity. … He turned down a sweetheart deal.”
Mr. Harper saw the situation much differently. A spiritual man, he had a dignified calming influence on Manitoba and Canadian politics. “I was listening to the people,” Mr. Harper said in 2005 when Mr. Mulroney’s comments became public. “When he says I’m stupid, he calls our people stupid. 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.”
Elijah Harper died on May 17 from cardiac failure resulting from complications from diabetes and kidney problems.
He was born on March 3, 1949, in a log cabin on the Red Sucker Lake First Nation reserve (then known as the Island Lake Reserve), 700 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg and close to the Ontario border. He was the second in a family of 13 children of Allan and Ethel Harper.
As a young child, he suffered from tuberculosis, a fact he learned only much later. He was raised by his grandparents and enjoyed learning the Cree language and culture from them as well as how to trap. Starting when he was 8, he endured many unhappy years as a student at three residential schools operated by the United and Presbyterian Churches.
One day, he recalled for his biographer, Pauline Comeau, he had not cleaned up his room properly. “Do it right,” he was told by one of the supervisors, “or I will bash your head against the wall.” He also remembered fellow students being rebuked for using First Nations languages and being beaten for trying to flee from the schools.
In his early twenties, he decided that he did not want to spend the rest of his life trapping, and opted to attend the University of Manitoba. There, in 1971, he became friends with two future Assembly of First Nations chiefs, Ovide Mercredi and Phil Fontaine.
Both were to provide him with sage advice during the Meech Lake debate. At the university, he joined with them to establish the first aboriginal student organization and fight the prevailing racism of the era.
Mr. Harper left university before he graduated and soon embarked on his political career. In 1978, at the age of 29, he became chief of the Red Sucker Lake reserve. Three years later, with a provincial election being held, he ran for the NDP in the northern riding of Rupertsland. He won the seat and became the first Aboriginal MLA in Manitoba. Close to five years after that, following another provincial election, premier Howard Pawley appointed him to the cabinet as the minister for northern affairs – another Manitoba first.
One evening in September, 1987, Mr. Harper, who had been drinking, was involved in a minor car accident. He telephoned Mr. Pawley the next morning. The premier suggested that he call a press conference and announce his resignation, advice that Mr. Harper followed. “It was a sad moment,” Mr. Pawley writes in his memoirs, “because he had been gaining momentum as an able and well-respected cabinet minister. Unlike others, however, he had not tried to dodge the incident or run away from it.”
Mr. Harper pleaded guilty to refusing to take a breathalyzer test and leaving the scene of an accident. His licence was suspended; he received a $450 fine and attended a rehabilitation program. A few months later, despite some criticism, he was reappointed to the cabinet.
After 11 years as an MLA, he jumped to federal politics and won a seat in the vast Manitoba riding of Churchill as a Liberal in the 1993 general election. From the House of Commons, he continued to work diligently defending the rights of First Nations. For about six months in 1995, he also battled a debilitating illness. Many of his constituents, however, were unhappy with Liberal government policies and he lost his seat to the NDP candidate in the 1997 federal election.
In 1999, Indian affairs minister Jane Stewart appointed Mr. Harper chairman of the Indian Claims Commission to navigate the complexities of federal-First Nations land disputes. In recent years, he also did international work in Taiwan and supported the initiatives of the East Side Road authority to improve transportation for First Nations communities on the east side of Lake Winnipeg.
Mr. Harper, soft-spoken, humble and dignified, dedicated himself to improving the lives of First Nations peoples and to engendering a genuine and mutual respect between aboriginals and all Canadians. That was what his defiant actions on the Meech Lake Accord were truly about.
“We want to be part of the Canadian society and to contribute toward the development of this country,” he said in 1985. It was as simple and as complicated as that.
He leaves his wife, Anita Olsen Harper, children Bruce and Holly, stepchildren Karen Lawford, Dylan, Gaylen and Grant Bokvist.
Allan Levine is a Winnipeg historian and writer.
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this article, which has been corrected, incorrectly referred to Gary Filmon as leader of an NDP minority government. This was due to an editing error.