You may not recognize his name, but Elijah Harper was one of the most important Indigenous leaders of the latter-half of the 20th century. His impact was felt through his political and activist work, in which he always put the cause of the Indigenous first. Today, I am looking at this fascinating man.
Elijah Harper was born at Red Sucker Lake Reserve in northern Manitoba on a trap line by some accounts, the second of 13 children to Allen and Ethel Harper. He would be raised by his grandparents who would bring traditional spiritual teachings into his life.
As a child, he was put into residential schools in Norway House, Brandon and Birtle, all located in Manitoba. He would remain there for eight years until he came home.
Later, he would attend secondary school in Garden Hill and Winnipeg.
Harper would then attend the University of Manitoba and begin to work with Indigenous communities. While in university, he would help form an Indigenous association that forced the engineering students of the newspaper to apologize for a satirical newspaper that contained only images of intoxicated Indigenous individuals.
One winter night, after organizing a similar Indigenous organization at the university in Brandon, Harper and several others got caught in a snowstorm. While the others wanted to quit, Ovide Mecredi and Harper refused and they took turns running in front of the headlights of the car so that the vehicle could stick to the pavement. Along the way, police and truckers told them to give it up, but the continued, for 30 kilometres, eventually becoming the only vehicle to make it through.
He would work as a community development worker, a supervisor for the Manitoba Indian Brotherhood and a program analyst for the Manitoba Department of Northern Affairs.
In 1978, Harper was elected the chief of the Red Sucker Lake Band, a position he would hold for four years.
In 1981, he would make history when he won the Manitoba riding of Rupertsland, which today is the largest electoral district in Manitoba. Elected as a member of the New Democratic Party, he was the first Treaty Indigenous person to be elected to the Legislature in Manitoba. At his victory party on election night, a man tried to punch Harper in the face.
During the debate over the Canadian Constitution in 1982, Harper and several other Indigenous leaders went to London to ask Queen Elizabeth II to make sure the Indigenous were treated fairly in the constitution.
When the Queen signed the Constitution in 1982, Harper refused the invitation to attend.
On April 17, 1986, Harper was appointed to cabinet as a Minister Without Portfolio, with his focus on Native Affairs.
On Feb. 4, 1987, he was named the Minister of Northern Affairs.
Harper would be ousted from cabinet on Sept. 9, 1987 when he was involved in a car accident while under the influence of alcohol. He would plead guilty to refusing a breathalyzer, leaving the scene of an accident and driving while impaired. Fined $450 and losing his licence for a year, Harper took full responsibility for the incident and entered into an alcohol-rehabilitation program. He would stop drinking for the rest of his life, and he would voluntarily not drive again for five years.
Harper would say quote:
“I made a mistake. I have asked the premier to relieve me of my ministerial responsibilities pending the outcome of these charges.”
He would add quote:
“I am a fighter. I’ve always fought and I’ll be up there fighting for my people.”
On Nov. 23, 1987, he was re-appointed as the Minister Responsible for Native Affairs.
In June 1990, Harper would see his profile reach nationwide when the Meech Lake Accord was being negotiated in order to gain the acceptance of Quebec of the Constitution Act of 1982.
Under the rules of the Manitoba Legislature, there had to be unanimous consent to a motion for an emergency debate that would bring the Accord up for a vote.
Harper was unhappy that the Accord had been negotiated in 1987 without any consultation with the Indigenous of Canada. He would say quote:
“Well I was opposed to the Meech Lake Accord because we weren’t included in the Constitution. We were to recognize Quebec as a distinct society, whereas we as Aboriginal people were completely left out. We were the First Peoples here – First Nations of Canada – we were the ones that made treaties with the settlers that came from Europe. These settler people and their governments didn’t recognize us as a Nation, as a government and that is why we opposed the Meech Lake Accord.”
With only 12 days left before the Accord could be ratified, Harper stood up in the Legislature holding an eagle feather and began a filibuster that delayed the process for calling up the Accord. The feather was important to Harper, who kept it on his desk during the day and within The Bible at night. Saul, the brother of Harper, stated that he had been told to walk to a clearing near Red Sucker Lake and when he did, he found the eagle feather in the middle of the clearing. He would give it to his younger brother Darryl, who would give it to Harper. During the Meech Lake Debate, a group of Indigenous would go back to that clearing and ask for strength for Harper to continue his fight. Chief John Harper, the cousin of Harper, looked up in the sky and saw an eagle circling.
Racist and patronizing comments would be made about Harper, stating he was actually being influenced by white anti-Meech Lake lawyers.
The Prime Minister’s Office came out to speak with Harper, but he told them he was not there to make a deal, but to listen out of politeness. Harper said this was not a grandstand for better pay, but a stand for morality.
A few days later, he pointed out to the premier that he did not include all the necessary documents when he tabled his notice. A three hour debate followed and the Speaker of the Legislature ruled in agreement with Harper.
The federal government, including senator Lowell Murray, a chief advisor for Mulroney, would meet with national Indigenous leaders and try to persuade them to not support Harper and his delay tactics. The Indigenous leaders said that they would continue to support him unless the government made new concessions. George Erasmus would say quote:
“Read my lips and look in my eyes. Aboriginal people are not going to accept exclusion from the Meech Lake Accord. It is going to die.”
Outside the Legislature, people were selling T-shirts that said “Elijah Harper for Prime Minister”, among thousands of Indigenous who had come to the Legislature from across Canada to support Harper.
Chief Gary Potts of Bear Island in Ontario would say quote:
“Elijah Harper is my hero”
Chief Tom Bressette of the Stony Pointe band near Sarnia, would say quote:
“Elijah Harper should be recognized among our people as a hero.”
At the eternal flame on Parliament Hill, 75 people walked carrying signs in support of Harper. In Toronto, 100 Indigenous marched wearing I Support Elijah Harper shirts at the Ontario Legislature. In Edmonton, 150 members of the Indian Association of Alberta showed up at the Legislature. It was there that the Indigenous gathered booed Alberta premier Don Getty over his support of the Meech Lake Accord.
For Harper, he often couldn’t meet with the people who were cheering him on as he was typically taken to a room and told to rest. He would say quote:
“I kept being put in a room and told to take it easy. I just wanted to feel, to be with the people.”
As a result of the efforts of Harper, there was not enough time to finish the vote before the deadline was reached. In response to this, Clyde Wells, the premier of Newfoundland, cancelled a proposed vote on the Accord in the Newfoundland Assembly. Meech Lake then failed to pass and the constitution was not amended.
Harper would say later quote:
“I stalled and killed it because I didn’t think it offered anything to aboriginal people.”
He would add later with an interview with Macleans, quote:
“I felt if I did not stop this process, I would regret it for the rest of my life.”
George Erasmus, the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations said of Harper’s actions quote:
“Elijah had always intended to vote against the accord and show his support for Native people. But we never expected to get this chance.”
Phil Fontaine, the leader of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, stated quote:
“Harper represents the collective will of the Indian people of Manitoba and Canada, and their pain and disappointment over the dishonorable treatment they have received from this nation.”
He would add in another interview quote:
“We have our own hero in Elijah Harper, someone we can look to as having stood up for our rights.”
For his actions, Harper was awarded the Stanley Knowles Humanitarian Award and the Canadian Press named him the Newsmaker of the Year.
Harper would say of the honour quote:
“That should be given not only to me but other Aboriginal people. We have tremendous Aboriginal leadership across the country. It does injustice to the recognition that they don’t get it. If it wasn’t for them it might not have been possible for me to be where I am today.”
The Red Sucker Lake First Nation made him the Honorary Chief and he received a commemorative medal from the Governor General.
As for that eagle feather, he would give it to the son born to his old friend Gordon Mackintosh, a lawyer and clerk in the Legislature. That son was born during the debate and given the name Elijah.
On Nov. 30, 1992, Harper resigned from the Manitoba Legislature to run in the 1993 federal election as a New Democrat in the riding of Churchill.
Harper would state quote:
“I don’t know whether to be happy or sad. When the time comes, if the great spirit is willing for me to run that forum, I’ll do so.”
The NDP would refuse this as Rod Murphy, the incumbent in the riding, would not step down in favour of Harper.
Harper fielded offers from several parties but he would join with the Liberals feeling that changing his party affiliation did not change his politics. That being said, many of his former allies felt the decision was misguided and within the Liberal Party, many Quebec Liberals did not want to be associated with Harper for his role in bringing down Meech Lake. Mulroney would state that Harper and Deborah Coyne, who also opposed Meech Lake, should both run in the election, stating quote:
“They would have the whole family together. Then maybe they could explain that one, in Quebec and elsewhere. I look forward to it.”
The Progressive Conservatives would push the message that Harper had killed the Meech Lake Accord in order to hurt the Liberals within Quebec. Liberal MP Brian Tobin would say quote:
“This is the prime minister practicing what he thinks is a politically acceptable form of racism.”
Local Liberals in the Churchill riding were not all in favour of Harper running. Bunny Cane, an executive member of the riding association said quote:
“He now appears to be shopping for a situation to further his own political career.”
The association sent a letter to David Walker, the Liberal MP for Winnipeg North Centre stating quote:
“Members of the Churchill constituency are extremely sensitive to any attempt or appearance of foisting a candidate on us by party power brokers.”
Liberal leader Jean Chretien would say of Harper running in the Churchill riding quote:
“Elijah Harper is a citizen of his riding in Churchill and it is a riding where two-thirds of the people are native. He’s been a champion of native causes and he has fought for his own people. If he wins, square and fair, he’s a very honorable man whose been an MLA and who believes in Indian rights like I do. Should I deny him because he used his powers to fight for the cause of natives? I don’t think it is a valid argument. It would have been discrimination if I had said no to him.”
In the end, Harper would defeat Murphy in the riding and would be elected to the House of Commons. In the election, he picked up 9,658 votes over Murphy, for 40.7 per cent of the vote. Murphy had served in the riding since 1979.
He would become a member of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs.
In 1994, he came down with an illness that doctors and Indigenous healers were at a loss to explain, but he would recover from it.
In 1996, he was presented with the National Aboriginal Achievement Award.
He would serve until 1997 when he was defeated by his NDP opponent, finishing second with 6,852 votes, and 29 per cent of the vote.
In 1999, Harper would become the commissioner of the Indian Claims Commission, and for the rest of his life was often asked to speak throughout the country.
On May 17, 2013, Harper died of heart failure due to complications from diabetes in Ottawa.
His family would say in a statement quote:
“Elijah was a wonderful man, father and partner. He was a true leader and visionary in every sense of the world. He will have a place in Canadian history forever for his devotion to public service and uniting his fellow First Nations with pride, determination and resolve.”
Three days later, his open casket was draped in the Manitoba flag so that he could lay in state in the Manitoba Legislature. Hundreds of people would pay their respects.
Derek Nepinak, the grand chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, said after seeing Harper in the casket quote:
“He gave us all inspiration to know that it is okay to say no sometimes. I think the legacy that he left will continue to inspire us and keep us on a good path.”
Shawn Atleo, the national chief of the Assembly of First nations stated quote:
“He stood firmly in his identity, in his roots. Those of us that are younger, we continue to stand in the shadow of great moments like that. Our work continues.”
He is buried at the Red Sucker Lake First Nation.
Information from Canadian Encyclopedia, Macleans, Wikipedia, Sault Star, Winnipeg Sun, Ottawa Citizen, Vancouver Province, Fort McMurray Today, Edmonton Journal, Regina Leader Post, Vancouver Sun, Montreal Gazette, Owen Sound Sun Times, Windsor Star,