Message of National Indigenous Peoples Day should be heard all year, Elijah Harper's son says

The son of the man who originally called for the establishment of what is now National Indigenous Peoples Day believes Canadians should educate themselves on the First Peoples of the land year-round.

Day was originally proclaimed in 1996

Elijah Harper, photographed on May 20, 2008, with one of two eagle feathers he held during the Manitoba vote on the Meech Lake Accord. Harper's son says the history and culture of Indigenous people should be celebrated year-round. (Tom Hanson/Canadian Press)

The son of the man who originally called for the establishment of what is now National Indigenous Peoples Day knows his father as more than the visionary who historically stood up for his people during the debate over the Meech Lake Accord.

"People view Elijah Harper the hero. I just call him Dad," said Bruce Harper, chuckling.

He was in his early 20s when his father, the late Manitoba politician who rose to fame for blocking the passage of constitutional amendments pushed by the federal government, wanted to acknowledge Canada's First Peoples on a national scale.

National Aboriginal Day, as it was originally named, was proclaimed in 1996. It was a year after the Sacred Assembly, a national conference of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people chaired by Elijah Harper, called for a holiday to celebrate the contributions of Indigenous people.

The day had also been recommended by the Royal Commission of Aboriginal Peoples, and by the National Indian Brotherhood, precursor to the Assembly of First Nations, in 1982.

National Indigenous Peoples Day is now celebrated every June 21 and National Indigenous History Month is observed every June.

Today, Elijah Harper's son is pleased to see the Indigenous Peoples Day celebration take hold.

"It means a lot to have a national day for our people to be recognized," he said. "I'm happy for it and I'm glad. It's a step toward recognizing our people."

The country still has a long way to go in recognizing the accomplishments of Indigenous Peoples, as well as the suppression they have faced from the church and state, Bruce said.

"We're the First Peoples of this land and we have a lot of history. We've had our language, our cultures, our stories and we've been here for a long, long time," he said.

Bruce would like to see the kind of events that mark Indigenous Peoples Day extended to an annual week of celebration, featuring powwows, square dance competitions and a feast.

Meech Lake Accord

Elijah Harper played a significant role in the history of Indigenous people in Canada.

He came to national attention in 1990 when, as a member of the Manitoba Legislative Assembly, he quietly voted against the Meech Lake Accord, eagle feather in hand.

His vote effectively stopped the constitutional amendment that was supposed to win Quebec's acceptance of the Constitution Act of 1982 by preventing Manitoba from approving the accord, which required passage by all 10 provinces and the federal government, before the deadline.

Harper objected to the package because Indigenous people weren't included in the negotiations and their concerns were not addressed in the act.

While it was an important turning point, Bruce Harper finds that many Canadians still hold a "wilful ignorance" of Indigenous people. Educating all Canadians, including newcomers, can change that, he says.

"Mainstream society says the Aboriginal people are getting handouts from the government, but the treaties and agreements are that we share the revenues of this land. So a lot of the money that is entrusted by the feds to the Aboriginal people comes from the productivity that this land has provided for this country."

With files from Cameron MacLean and Samantha Samson