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RIP Elijah Harper, Aboriginal Leader And Key Player In Meech Lake Accord
May 17, 2013
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One of this country's best known aboriginal leaders, Elijah Harper, has died at age 64.

His family said today he died as a result of cardiac failure due to complications from diabetes.

Harper was an aboriginal leader and politician for much of his life, and played a key role in defeating the Meech Lake Accord in 1990.

At one point, he stood in the Manitoba legislature, holding an eagle feather and refusing to support the accord - simply saying "No".


He said the deal, designed to get Quebec to sign on to the Constitution, ignored aboriginal rights and was negotiated without the input of First Nations.

It was a move that helped empower aboriginal peoples across the country but also helped to rejuvenate the sovereigntist movement in Quebec.

In order to pass, the accord had to be approved by Parliament and all 10 provinces.

But as the Canadian Press reports, "Harper refused to allow legislature rules to be waived to speed debate of the resolution. He delayed it long enough to make it impossible to meet the deadline" set by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, which meant the deal died.

"I stalled and killed it because I didn't think it offered anything to the aboriginal people," Harper said about his decision, which earned him the title of The Canadian Press 'newsmaker of the year'.

Years later, in an interview with the Globe & Mail, he said "There was no looking back."

"It wasn't done out of being negative, or out of spite, or anything. We were just trying to be recognized for our rightful place in Canada."

Newfoundland called off its free vote in the legislature as well.

At the time, Harper was a NDP opposition member in Manitoba - the first person elected from a First Nation to serve as a MLA, spending 11 years on the job from 1981 to 1992.

That included two years as minister of native/northern affairs in former NDP premier Howard Pawley's government.

A year later, he ran federally and was elected as a Liberal Member of Parliament - serving one term in Ottawa representing the northern Manitoba riding of Churchill.

"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.

"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."

Shawn Atleo, the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) National Chief, offered his condolences saying...

"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 was born on the Red Sucker Lake First Nation, about 700 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg. He went to residential schools in Norway House, Brandon and Birtle, and then secondary schools at Garden Hill and Winnipeg.

He studied at the University of Manitoba and began his career in public service when he was elected chief of his Ojibwa-Cree community when he was 29.

In 1994, Harper became sick with a mysterious illness that stumped doctors and native healers.

After that, he spent much of his time visiting First Nations, meeting with indigenous leaders across North America, working with charities, and doing humanitarian work.

He was also given the title of honourary chief for life by Red Sucker Lake First Nation.

As Gloria Galloway writes in the Globe & Mail, "Rarely can one person change the course of history for an entire country. Elijah Harper did."

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