25 years since Elijah Harper said 'no' to the Meech Lake Accord

25 years after the late Elijah Harper made history by standing up in the Manitoba Legislature and opposing the Meech Lake Accord, retired indigenous leader Phil Fontaine remembers how the plan was hatched in a downtown Winnipeg coffee shop.

Retired indigenous leader Phil Fontaine remembers "a powerful moment for First Nations."

Aboriginal leader Elijah Harper, a former Manitoba MLA and MP, played a key role in defeating the Meech Lake accord. Here, Harper holds an eagle feather for spiritual strength as he refused to support the accord in Winnipeg in 1990. (Wayne Glowacki/Winnipeg Free Press/Canadian Press)

It's been 25 years since Elijah Harper held an eagle feather, stood in the Manitoba Legislature and quietly said no to the Meech Lake Accord. 

The accord was a series of constitutional amendments aimed at keeping Quebec in Canada - but was fiercely opposed by indigenous leaders who felt it ignored their rights and place in this country.

Phil Fontaine was then Grand Chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs and a key player in the accord's defeat. Fontaine says AMC had been looking for a legal way to challenge the accord but soon realized the solution had to be political. 

Former Manitoba Grand Chief Phil Fontaine. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Fontaine says he called Elijah Harper, who was meeting with his constituents in northern Manitoba.

"I said, 'look we have to meet to talk about the accord and we think you can play an important role in this," he says. 

According to Fontaine, the two arranged to meet in the restaurant of the Charter House hotel in downtown Winnipeg,

The accord required unanimous ratification by parliament and all 10 provincial legislatures. In Manitoba, the first ratification vote was set to take place on June 12, 1990 and was expected to be passed without any resistance.

If Harper voted against it, Fontaine said, the accord could be defeated.

That meeting between Fontaine and Harper lasted over an hour and Fontaine remembers Harper - then the only aboriginal MLA in Manitoba - feared his political career might suffer from going against the accord and the entire legislature. Harper was also dealing with a possible challenge to his leadership.

"I said, look, don't worry about that. Just focus on this issue. This is the big issue," Fontaine says.

On June 12, 1990, Fontaine says chiefs were meeting downtown and decided they wanted to be there when Harper voted no so dozens marched from their meeting to the legislature.

"But when we got to the legislature, up to the steps, we were met by security," he says.

CBC footage from the time shows scuffles as those security guards try in vain to keep chiefs out.

"There was a real big push. Pascal Bighetty, who was a chief, his sports jacket was torn," recalls Fontaine.

Eventually, the chiefs managed to push through and made their way to the gallery to witness Elijah Harper stand up and say no.

"It was an empowering moment," Fontaine says. "This was a powerful moment for First Nations."

Between June 12 and 21, Harper stood up with the feather and refused to support the accord 8 times. Soon, Newfoundland and Labrador followed suit and the accord withered and failed.

Fontaine says it was a turning point in history for indigenous people.

"We came to the realization very quickly that our voice mattered. We could make history, we could change the course of history. We knew and understood what was possible."

There will be an event marking the 25th anniversary of Elijah Harper's stand on the grounds of the Manitoba Legislature this Saturday.