Elijah Harper, Oji-Cree politician, consultant, policy analyst (born 3 March 1949 at Red Sucker Lake, MB; died 17 May 2013 in Ottawa, ON). Harper is best known for the role he played in scuttling the Meech Lake Accord, for which he was named the Canadian Press newsmaker of the year for 1990. The first Aboriginal member of the Legislative Assembly of Manitoba, Harper also served as the Minister for Northern Affairs. From 1993 to 1997 he represented the riding of Churchill in the federal parliament.
Harper was born on the Red Sucker Lake reserve, an Oji-Cree community about 700 kilometres north of Winnipeg. Like many Aboriginal children of his generation, he was forcibly removed from his family at a young age and sent to residential schools. Harper attended the University of Manitoba in the early 1970s, where he became friends with Ovide Mercredi and Phil Fontaine, both of whom would later become National Chiefs of the Assembly of First Nations. Harper left the university and became a community development worker and researcher for the Manitoba Indian Brotherhood. Harper later served as a program analyst for the Department of Northern Affairs until his election as chief of the Red Sucker Lake Indian Band (now Red Sucker Lake First Nation) in 1978.
Harper entered provincial politics in 1981 when he ran for election as MLA for the New Democratic Party (NDP) in the riding of Rupertsland; when he won, he became the first Aboriginal person to take a seat in the Manitoba legislature. Harper joined the Cabinet in 1986 as minister without portfolio responsible for Native Affairs. He resigned from his post in September 1987 after being involved in a minor car accident while under the influence of alcohol. A few months later he was reappointed to the cabinet, becoming minister of Northern Affairs for Manitoba.
Opposing the Meech Lake Accord
In 1990 Harper rose to national prominence for his opposition to the Meech Lake Accord. Harper initiated procedural delays in the Manitoba legislature that threatened to extend the vote beyond 23 June 1990, the deadline established for the accord. The Manitoba premier, Gary Filmon, needed all MLAs to approve the procedure for ratifying the accord. Eight separate times Harper refused to give his consent, on the grounds that First Nations had not been consulted or recognized in the constitutional discussions around the Meech Lake Accord. When the Legislative Assembly of Manitoba adjourned on 22 June, it had not voted on the accord. Clyde Wells, in response to Harper's initiative, refused to take a vote in Newfoundland, arguing that the situation in Manitoba made it irrelevant. As a result, the deadline passed and the accord collapsed (see Constitutional History). Harper made news stories across the country, and the Canadian Press voted him Newsmaker of the Year for 1990.
Harper entered federal politics in 1993 when he was elected as the Liberal candidate for the riding of Churchill; he served as MP for that riding until 1997. In 1999 he was appointed a commissioner of the Indian Claims Commission. He continued to support initiatives to improve the lives of First Nations peoples and was involved in humanitarian and charitable causes abroad.
Death and Public Response
Harper died in Ottawa on 17 May 2013 from cardiac failure caused by complications from diabetes. His body lay in state at the Manitoba legislature, and hundreds lined up to pay their respects to the man who said, “No.”
Awards and Honours
Canadian Press Newsmaker of the Year (1990)
Stanley Knowles Humanitarian Award (1990)
Honorary Chief for Life, Red Sucker Lake First Nation (1990)
National Aboriginal Achievement Award (1996)
Award of Merit, Canadian Institute for Conflict Resolution, Saint Paul University (1998)
Order of Manitoba (2010)
Honorary Doctor of Laws, University of Winnipeg (2011)
Honorary Doctor of Laws, Carleton University (2012)