Aboriginal Arts & Stories - Our Harper

Our Harper

2014 - Writing Winner

The atmosphere across the country was intense. There were death threats against Elijah Harper, causing him to go into hiding for a period of time. There was a lot of backlash and the public felt that Elijah was standing in the way of country.

Read Kearson Pitawanakwat's Our Harper

Kearson Pitawanakwat

Blind River, ON
Age 15

Author's Statement

I chose to write about Elijah Harper. On May 17, 2013, while sitting and watching the local news with my mother, there was mention of Elijah Harper’s passing. My mom mentioned she had met Elijah a couple of times. I asked who he was and my mother indicated that he was the first aboriginal MP and was the key figure that caused the Meech Lake Accord to fail. He was a quiet, shy but compassionate man. He was a great leader, because he spoke up for first nations people. He brought to the forefront the lack of adequate participation and recognition of Aboriginal people in the political process. In addition to awareness of the political process and first nation rights, he has inspired more participation in politics.

Being enrolled in Civics this semester, I have been learning a lot about government. The course has opened my eyes to what is happening in society. Elijah Harper stood alone to protect our rights in 1990. As a young person I felt that I should learn more about him and the Meech Lake Accord so that I could understand what role he has played for me, my generation and for many generations to come.


Our Harper

I am not referring to the Prime Minister of Canada, Stephen Harper – but our own Harper, Elijah. Elijah Harper was born March 3, 1949 in Red Sucker Lake First Nation, Manitoba. He was a quiet, shy, and a compassionate man. Like my great grandfather and many of our ancestors, Elijah was forcibly removed from his home and community by an Indian Agent. He was taken and placed in a number of federal residential schools in Manitoba. While at the residential school, he was forbidden to speak his native language and practice traditional ceremonies. Elijah remained in residential school until the age of eighteen, at which time he returned home to Red Sucker Lake First Nation.

Elijah’s life in politics began when he was twenty nine years old, when he was elected Chief of his First Nation. Elijah aspired to do more not only for his community, but others as well and went on to become the first treaty Indian to be elected to his provincial riding of Rupertsland in 1981. He was appointed as a Cabinet Minister without a portfolio in 1986, and became Minister of Native Affairs in 1987.

The same year that Elijah was appointed as Minister of Indian Affairs, Prime Minister Mulroney held a meeting with the provinces premiers in Wilson House, Meech Lake and negotiated the Accord. The terms negotiated would modify the Constitution of 1982 by allowing for the provinces to have increased powers in immigration; input in the appointment of senators and supreme court judges; constitutional veto powers and finally, grant them a “distinct society” status. The Accord was negotiated without the input of the public or First Nations people.

For the Accord to pass, it required the unanimous consent of all provinces. If the Accord did not pass, there was the threat that Quebec would separate from Canada. A separation would also physically separate the Maritime Provinces from the rest of the country. This physical separation could result in the Maritime Provinces joining the United States.

Manitoba, unlike many of the other provinces, were required to hold public meetings to vote on a matter of significant importance. This did not occur. When Manitoba’s premier presented a motion on June 12, 1990 to introduce the Meech Lake Accord into the house for a vote, Harper voted against granting the motion. The motion was again presented two days later and Elijah Harper indicated that the motion was out of order, and the Premier failed to give 2 days notice to bring the motion. With the seriousness of the Accord, it was important to follow all the rules of the Legislature, and the motion was denied.

The atmosphere across the country was intense. There were death threats against Elijah Harper, causing him to go into hiding for a period of time. There was a lot of backlash and the public felt that Elijah was standing in the way of country. What the public didn’t seem to realize was that Elijah was only protecting the rights of First Nations people as well as mainstream society by ensuring democracy was in place.

With all the publicity of the June 23 deadline for ratification of the Meech Lake Accord, all eyes were on Manitoba, and Elijah Harper – the one individual that had the power to prevent unanimous consent. The motion was tabled to be heard on June 22, 1990 in the Manitoba legislature. Holding his eagle feather and standing up for the rights of First Nation people, Elijah said “no”.  Elijah indicated that there was a lack of participation and recognition of First Nation people in the process. The Meech Lake Accord failed.

Elijah Harper continued to advocated for aboriginal people around the world and remained active in politics for a number of years, He resigned from the Legislative Assembly in 1992, and was elected as a Member of Parliament for Churchill in 1993. He was appointed as a member of the Aboriginal Advisory Council in 1996 and appointed to the Privy Council as Commissioner for the Indian Claims Commission in 1998. Elijah passed away in May 2013.

Elijah Harper is and will always be a hero to First Nation people in Canada. He was truly a great leader, because he spoke for his people.  He refused to succumb to public pressure, and has inspired us to be more aware and more involved in the political process.  He is our hero. Our Harper.