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In 2002, urban elder Vern Harper of the Toronto Native Community approaches a three-year-old bald eagle that was brought to a protest at City Hall to save Indigenous land and wildlife in the Rouge Valley.Tibor Kolley

Vern Harper, who has died at the age of 81, was an activist who advocated for Indigenous rights – he preferred to call himself a dissident – during a tumultuous era. At that time, disputes raged over land claims, native peoples’ right of self-government, and a range of inequities that Canada’s aboriginal people faced.

“My father was considered a radical back in the 1970s,” said his daughter, Luana Harper-Shirt. “Today, his ideas have become the norm. Rather than a radical, he is seen as a ground-breaker.”

Mr. Harper organized a historic cross-Canada protest with Pauline Shirt, his wife at the time. The Native People’s Caravan travelled from Vancouver to Ottawa to increase awareness on a range of issues. On Sept. 30, 1974, as the 30th Parliament of Canada was opening, welcoming Pierre Trudeau’s Liberals back with a majority, 200 Indigenous demonstrators assembled on Parliament Hill and a clash broke out between them and the RCMP police riot squad.

“It was the RCMP that rioted,” Mr. Harper told The Globe’s Rudy Platiel 10 years later.

Mr. Harper wrote a book about his protest: The Red Road: The Native People’s Caravan, 1974.

At the time, much was made of Mr. Harper and some colleagues calling themselves Marxist-Leninists and internal fights with the Maoists, but the Cold War name-calling seems meaningless today.

“The main theme of the caravan was to speak to the Parliamentarians, get them to listen to native people on everything from funding to social issues, though our main focus was education,” Ms. Shirt said. “It was a success; it woke up people across the country.”

The caravan put Indigenous issues on the agenda, including the recognition of the rights of Canada’s Métis people. Mr. Harper served as vice-president of the Ontario Métis and Non-Status Indian Association in the 1970s and was on the Native Council of Canada.

Not long before the caravan departed, Mr. Harper had run for the Marxist-Leninist Party in Toronto Centre, a federal riding that ran from posh Rosedale to some of the city’s poorest areas to the south. Mr. Harper received 75 votes in a riding won by Liberal cabinet minister Donald Macdonald, with 17,227 votes.

Vern Harper listens to speakers at a rally at Nathan Phillips Square in Toronto in 1995.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Many years later, Mr. Harper became disillusioned with the Marxist-Leninists and left the party.

After the caravan, Mr. Harper and Ms. Shirt started the Wandering Spirit Survival School, for Toronto’s urban native children.

“It started in our living room as a private school in 1974, with seven students. Then it was recognized as an alternative school by the Toronto District School Board,” said Ms. Shirt, who is an educator. When it relocated and became a public school in 1976, the number of students ballooned to 100. Now known as the First Nations School of Toronto, it has more than 200 students ranging from junior kindergarten to Grade 12, who are bussed in from all over the city.

In addition to the standard curriculum, native history and culture are also taught there.

“My daughters went to [a mainstream] school, and they were taught that Big Bear was a traitor. The real way [native people] see it is that he was a great leader,” Mr. Harper said in a 1977 National Film Board documentary on the school. “This is the reason it is so important that we see out history through our interpretations, not the Anglican Church or Indian Affairs. ... The only way it is going to get better for native people is that native people make it better.”

The National Film Board also produced a documentary on Mr. Harper as well, titled Urban Elder.

Mr. Harper worked for many years as an Indigenous chaplain and social worker in prisons and Toronto hospitals, in particular, CAMH, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. From 2000 to 2013 he was on staff full-time as an elder for aboriginal services.

“He was the first elder hired at any hospital in Ontario. He was an outgoing, very social man and worked to help support Indigenous patients, as well as some non-Indigenous patients,” says Dr. Renee Linklater, director of aboriginal engagement and outreach at CAMH. “He was an important figure for the entire CAMH community.”

Mr. Harper was one of a few First Nations elders with a chaplain status recognized by the Correctional Service of Canada. He provided spiritual services, sweat lodge ceremonies and traditional counselling to Indigenous prison inmates. He also did some acting, including in the TV series Street Legal.

Vernon Harper was born on Toronto on June 17, 1936. His mother was Cree, his father an Irish immigrant. The family lived in Toronto’s Regent Park. His father left the family and his mother died when he was four years old. Some relatives said they would care for him, but he ended up being placed in foster care, where he was abused.

After running away from a foster home as a teenager, he discovered his native roots and lived for a while at the Mistawasis First Nation near Prince Albert Sask. In the early 1950s, he went to the United States and joined the army. He served in the Korean War, was wounded and returned home to Saskatchewan.

He then moved back to Toronto, where he became was a professional boxer, a light heavyweight with a record of 54 wins and 7 losses. “Most of my fights were knockouts,” he told a reporter in 2000. He had problems with alcohol and drugs, but he kicked the habits. He was sober for the last 50 years of his life.

Vern Harper was an urban elder. Most of the work he did was with native people who lived in cities.

“Vern was born and raised in Toronto. He loved the city, and he loved helping others, especially the street people. He had a very kind heart,” Ms. Shirt said.

Mr. Harper died on May 12 in Toronto. He leaves his brother, Kenneth; his wife, Jerrilynn; and his children, Susan, Deanna, Luana, Clayton, Ted, Les, Carly, and Cody. Four of his children predeceased him as did his brothers Edward and Victor, who was his twin.