Condolences have poured in for revered aboriginal leader and politician Elijah Harper, who walked on at age 64 from heart failure induced by diabetes complications on Friday morning May 17.
“Elijah was a wonderful man, father, partner. He was a true leader and visionary in every sense of the word,” his family said in a statement announcing his death. “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.”
Though he served in politics for much of his life, the former chief of the Ojibwa-Cree Red Sucker Lake Indian band in Manitoba was best known for blocking a vote in the provincial legislature in 1990 called the Meech Lake Accord. It was an agreement designed to get Quebec to sign the country’s constitution that needed province-by-province ratification.
But the agreement, Harper said, had been crafted with nary an aboriginal consult, and on those grounds he sat, his hand clenched around an eagle feather, simply repeating “no” on extending a key deadline until it had passed, and the agreement was dead.
By singlehandedly blocking the vote, the then New Democratic Party opposition member of the Manitoba legislature “saved Canada,” as ICTMN columnist Mark Trahant put it last September when writing about the Native ability to influence public policy. (Related: Elections 2012: A Native Legislator Saves Canada)
“As a humble leader, he made Canadian history when he, with eagle feather in hand, said “No” to the Meech Lake Accord. He felt that the indigenous people of this country were not being recognized or being allowed to participate in a meaningful way in that constitutional process,” said Grand Chief Derek Nepinak in a statement from the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs. “Elijah Harper became a symbol of great courage and strong First Nations leadership. He was a hero to many, an inspiring positive role model for indigenous people here in Canada and around the globe. His dedication and commitment to our First Nations people is commendable and will act as a legacy as so many of our Indigenous young people strive for success.”
Anishinabek Nation Grand Council Chief Patrick Madahbee mourned the loss on both a personal and political level.
“Nobody understood better the concept of First Nations sovereignty, and the positive impact that it will have on Canada’s cultural, social and economic well?being,” he said in a statement. “We will miss his courageous and inspirational voice, and send our sincere condolences to members of his family.”
It put Harper on the map with mainstream Canadians as well.
“[There's] no question that his position on Meech Lake brought First Nation and aboriginal issues into the forefront," said Gary Filmon, who was premier of Manitoba at the time of the Meech Lake vote, to CBC News.
Harper’s example also inspired a generation of aboriginals in politics.
"Without Elijah Harper there's no Idle No More, because he is the forerunner to that movement,” Niigaanwewidam Sinclair, a student at the University of Manitoba, told CBC News.
Harper was also the first status Indian to serve in a provincial legislature, the Canadian Press said. He was a member of that body from 1981 through 1992, when he resigned. A year later he ran for Parliament in the Liberal Party and won that seat, the Canadian Press said, representing Manitoba’s Churchill district, or riding.
Harper was also awarded the Stanley Knowles Humanitarian Award in 1990 and voted Newsmaker of the Year in Canada by the Canadian Press after the Meech Lake Accord incident. He was a “tireless and courageous leader of our peoples,” said Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn A-in-chut Atleo.
“Elijah’s commitment and dedication to asserting and upholding First Nation rights and recognition has helped lay a solid foundation as this hard work continues today,” Atleo said in a statement. “Leading two Sacred Assemblies focused on finding a spiritual basis for healing and understanding between indigenous and non-indigenous peoples, Elijah’s drive and actions toward reconciliation will continue to be a legacy for First Nation and all Canadians as we move toward improved and renewed relationships based on mutual respect and recognition – two things he stood firm on in all of his work.”
Harper touched the lives of many, and his passing generated condolences ranging from the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business to Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Bernard Valcourt, who called him a “dedicated First Nations leader and advocate.”
Surviving Harper are his wife; his children, Bruce and Holly, and his stepchildren, Karen Lawford, Dylan, Gaylen and Grant Bokvist. He is predeceased by his daughter Tanya. Funeral services are scheduled for 10 a.m. Monday May 20 at the Aboriginal Funeral Chapel in Winnipeg, Manitoba, the AFN’s statement said.