Elijah Harper, visionary leader, passes on at 64
Last updated 7/27/2013 at 1:51pm
WINNIPEG, MB—A former member of Canada’s Parliament and the Province of Manitoba’s legislature died in Ottawa on May 17, 2013 after suffering cardiac failure due to complications from diabetes. He was 64.
Elijah Harper gained national attention in 1990 when he took a stand against the Meech Lake accord, which was basically blocking a constitutional amendment which would have given Quebec “distinct society” status by gaining Quebec’s acceptance of the Constitution Act of 1982.
Harper took this stand because the accord was negotiated without the input of Canada’s Aboriginal peoples. As a result, Manitoba became the first province to reject ratification. Newfoundland canceled its vote. Thus the accord could not be ratified because it didn’t receive the approval of all ten provincial legislatures and Parliament.
Because of this simple yet courageous action, Harper became an iconic Aboriginal leader. From there, he went on to become a Member of Parliament and became a national Aboriginal leader.
In a statement released by his family, Harper was eulogized as 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. Elijah will also be remembered for bringing Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people together to find a spiritual basis for healing and understanding.”
“When my own family learned that I was coming here, they said make sure to tell the family: It’s absolute respect but it’s deeper than that,” stated National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations Shawn Atleo. “It’s pure love for a man who stood up, with great courage—in the most humble way, in the most profound manner—and said no. And it’s the power of the right to stand up and say no, in the face of oppression…” Atleo continued. “It’s also a legacy that’s about saying yes to healing and reconciliation. When he left politics, that’s his legacy as well—saying you’ve got to build bridges with the rest of Canada, the rest of the world.”
Harper’s casket was draped with the Flag of Manitoba and his body lay in state in the Winnipeg legislature. In tribute to Harper, officers of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in red serge and Winnipeg Police in full dress uniform stood side-by-side with chiefs in headdress while hundreds—the common people, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people from all walks of life—paid final respects to the bridge-builder, Elijah Harper.
“There is nobody else who has been called to the role Elijah Harper was called to,” said elder Ed Wood at his public funeral at Winnipeg’s Glory and Peace Church. “Elijah carried out the duties and responsibilities of his calling with strength and courage. When you think of Elijah, think of the...strength and unity we continue to receive from his life.”
Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs Grand Chief Derek Nepinak spoke of Harper as not only a political role model but also as his friend. “He was a humble and powerful man and we will miss him. The Creator has taken back His gift He gave to us,” Nepinak stated.
Born on the Red Sucker Lake First Nation, about 710 kilometers (441 miles) northeast of Winnipeg, he was the son of a pastor. During his youth he attended residential schools in Norway House, Brandon and Birtle and secondary schools at Garden Hill and Winnipeg.
He went on to graduate from the University of Manitoba. He was just 29 when he was elected chief of his community.
In 1981, he became the first Aboriginal member elected to the Manitoba Legislative assembly, representing Rupertsland for 11 years.
In 1993, Harper was elected for one term to Canada’s Parliament in Ottawa, representing the Churchill riding.
In 1994, he suffered a mysterious illness which medical experts could not explain. He sought spiritual help, was baptized and returned to Red Sucker Lake to his father’s church. Through prayer and meditation, he was healed.
A year later he brought Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples together from across Canada to find healing and begin reconciling in what was called the Sacred Assembly. National leaders of church denominations formally apologized. A second Sacred Assembly was held at the Sagkeeng First Nation in August 1997.
In January 1998, he became commissioner for the Indian Claims Commission and was in demand as a speaker until his death.
Elijah Harper was laid to rest in his home community of Red Sucker Lake First Nation on May 23, 2013.