Elijah Harper, the former Manitoba MLA and MP who was the central figure in the defeat of the 1990 Meech Lake Accord, died on May 17th at the age of 64. Harper passed away early Friday morning in Ottawa as a result of cardiac arrest due to complications from diabetes, according to a statement from the family. “Elijah was a wonderful man, father, partner,” said his wife Anita Olsen Harper, in the statement. “He was a true leader and visionary in every sense of the word. “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.”
The late Elijah Harper was born on March 3, 1949 at the Red Sucker Lake First Nation in northeastern Manitoba. He was educated at residential school and later studied at the University of Manitoba. Harper began his long career in public service when he was elected chief of his First Nation in 1968 at the young age of 29, and worked with the Manitoba Indian Brotherhood. In 1981, he was elected as a member of the Manitoba Legislative Assembly for Rupertsland for the New Democratic Party, an office he held for 11 years.
Harper became an ionic figure in Canadian history and politics by refusing to support major constitutional amendments contained in the Meech Lake Accord in 1990 by symbolically holding up an eagle feather in the Manitoba legislative building. He protested that the proposed accord had been negotiated without the input of Canada’s First Nations leadership. The accord required ratification by all 10 provincial legislatures and Harper’s no vote prevented Manitoba from ratifying the document before the deadline. As a result of his stand against the Meech Lake Accord, Harper was recognized as “Newsmaker of the Year” by the Canadian Press. “Elijah Harper’s historical Meech Lake assertion [was] a significant flag of political justice for First Nations in Canada,” said Chief Isadore Day, of the Serpent River First Nation. “That moment will be etched as the marker, making him a perpetual icon in this country’s political system.”
In 1993, Elijah was elected for one term as Member of parliament for the Churchill riding. He was the first elected Aboriginal person to serve as an MLA and was appointed to the Manitoba cabinet as Minister without portfolio for Native Affairs in 1996. In 1997, he served as Minister of Northern Affairs, and in January 1998, he served a term as Commissioner of the Indian Claims Commission. His commitment to human rights took him around the world, including the European parliament in France, as well as South Africa, Great Britain, and the International Court of Justice at the Hague.
After a prolonged illness, Elijah brought together 3,000 Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people in Hull, Quebec, for a Sacred Assembly in December 1995 to find a spiritual process for resolving political problems. “Mr. Harper [was] an inspiring positive role model for indigenous people here in Canada and around the globe,” said Grand Chief Derek Nepinak. “Over the course of his career, he used fundamental democratic processes to address First Nations issues that have been politically ignored for centuries. His courage, his quiet and gentle leadership will be greatly missed.”
Harper’s First Nation of Red Sucker Lake bestowed him the title of Honourary Chief for Life for his heroic work. He was also the recipient of the Commemorative Medal of Canada, a National Aboriginal Achievement Award for Public Service, the Order Merit from St. Paul’s University, the Order of the Sash from the Manitoba Metis Federation, and the Golden Eagle Award from the Indigenous Women’s Collective of Manitoba.
Harper is survived by his wife and his children Bruce and Holly. He was also stepfather to Karen Lawford, Dylan, Gaylen and Grant Bokvist. He was predeceased by his daughter Tanya. Harper’s body will lie in state at the Manitoba legislature for one day and flown to Red Sucker Lake for burial, where he was born.