Elijah Harper

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Elijah Harper
Member of Parliament for Churchill
In office
Preceded by Rod Murphy
Succeeded by Bev Desjarlais
Manitoba Minister of Northern Affairs
In office
February 4, 1987 – May 9, 1988
Premier Howard Pawley
Preceded by Harry Harapiak
Succeeded by Jim Downey
Manitoba Minister without Portfolio
In office
April 17, 1986 – February 4, 1987
Premier Howard Pawley
Member of the Legislative Assembly of Manitoba for Rupertsland
In office
1981 – November 30, 1992
Preceded by Harvey Bostrom
Succeeded by Eric Robinson
Personal details
Born (1949-03-03)March 3, 1949
Red Sucker Lake, Manitoba
Died May 17, 2013(2013-05-17) (aged 64)
Ottawa, Ontario
Political party
Alma mater University of Manitoba

Elijah Harper OM (March 3, 1949 – May 17, 2013) was a Canadian politician and Chief of his Red Sucker Lake community. He was a key player in the rejection of the Meech Lake Accord, an attempt at Canadian constitutional reform.

Early life[edit]

Harper was born in Red Sucker Lake, a reserve in northern Manitoba. He attended residential schools in Norway House, Brandon and Birtle, Manitoba, then secondary school at Garden Hill and Winnipeg. He studied at the University of Manitoba in 1971 and 1972, and later worked as a community development worker, a supervisor for the Manitoba Indian Brotherhood, and a program analyst for the Manitoba Department of Northern Affairs.[1]


In 1978, he was elected as the Chief for Red Sucker Lake Band (now Red Sucker Lake First Nation), a position he held for four years.

In 1981, Harper contested and won the sprawling northern Manitoba riding of Rupertsland for the New Democratic Party to become the first Treaty Indian to be elected as a provincial politician. On April 17, 1986, he was appointed to cabinet as a Minister without Portfolio, responsible for Native Affairs. On February 4, 1987, he was named Minister of Northern Affairs and Minister in charge of the Communities Economic Fund Act. He was dropped from the Cabinet on September 9, 1987, after being involved in a car accident while driving under the influence of alcohol. No one was injured in the incident. Harper subsequently pleaded guilty to refusing a breathalyzer test, leaving the scene of an accident and driving while impaired. He was fined $450, and his driver's licence was suspended for a year. Harper acknowledged his mistake, and entered an alcohol-rehabilitation program.[2] He stopped drinking for good, and voluntarily stopped driving for five years.[3] He was reappointed as Minister of Northern Affairs and Minister responsible for Native Affairs, on November 23, 1987, and served until the defeat of Howard Pawley's government in 1988.

In 1990, Harper achieved national fame for his refusal to accept the Meech Lake Accord, a constitutional amendment package negotiated to gain Quebec's acceptance of the Constitution Act, 1982. For ratification, the Manitoba assembly would have had to unanimously consent to a motion allowing it to hold a vote on the Accord. Harper was displeased that the Accord had been negotiated in 1987 without the input of Canada's First Nations.

Well I was opposed to the Meech Lake Accord because we weren't included in the Constitution. We were to recognize Quebec as a distinct society, whereas we as Aboriginal people were completely left out. We were the First Peoples here - First Nations of Canada - we were the ones that made treaties with the settlers that came from Europe. These settler people and their governments didn't recognize us as a Nation, as a government and that is why we opposed the Meech Lake Accord.[4] Elijah Harper.

With only twelve days before the ratification deadline for the Accord, Harper raised an eagle feather and began a filibuster which prevented the assembly from adopting the required motion. As a result, Newfoundland premier Clyde Wells cancelled a proposed vote on the Accord in the Newfoundland legislature. As Meech Lake failed to pass in both Manitoba and Newfoundland, the constitution was not amended.[5] The same year, he won the Stanley Knowles Humanitarian Award, was voted as the "Newsmaker of the Year in Canada" by the Canadian Press, was awarded the title of Honorary Chief for Life by Red Sucker Lake First Nation, and received a commemorative medal of Canada from the Governor General for his efforts in public service.[1] Harper also opposed the Charlottetown Accord in 1992.

Harper resigned from the Manitoba legislature on November 30, 1992. He initially wanted to run for the federal New Democratic Party in the 1993 federal election, in the northern riding of Churchill, but was rebuffed by the party leadership (the riding was already represented by NDP MP Rod Murphy, who did not want to resign). After considering offers from several parties, Harper agreed to join the Liberals in early 1993. He claimed that this change in party affiliation did not reflect a change in his principles: he intended to represent native interests in parliament, party lines notwithstanding. His presence in the Liberal Party was controversial, however; many former allies considered his decision misguided, and some Quebec Liberal MPs did not want to be associated with the man who brought down Meech Lake.

Harper defeated Murphy in the 1993 election, and served in the Canadian House of Commons in Ottawa, as a Liberal. He was a member of the Parliamentary Standing Committee of Aboriginal Affairs, but was otherwise not a prominent MP. He was defeated by New Democrat Bev Desjarlais in the 1997 election, and again in the 2000 election.

For his work for his people, Harper received the Stanley Knowles Humanitarian Award in 1991, and a National Aboriginal Achievement Award, now the Indspire Awards, in 1996. Elijah Harper was appointed Commissioner of the Indian Claims Commission on January 21, 1999, and remained in demand as a speaker until his death.

A film based on Harper’s life focusing in particular on the month of June 1990, when Harper blocked the Manitoba legislature from voting on the Meech Lake Accord, was directed by Paul Unwin and played in 2007 at the Vancouver International Film Festival. The film, entitled Elijah, was produced for the CTV Television Network. It stars Billy Merasty in the title role.

Personal life and death[edit]

Harper had some personal controversy. Creditors as well as his ex-wife sued him for financial claims.[6]

Harper also had health problems. In the autumn of 1994 he had a mysterious illness doctors and native healers could not explain. On May 17, 2013, he died of heart failure due to complications from diabetes in Ottawa.[6]

"It is always very difficult to go against the wind, and to stand up straight and say no when the easier path is to give in and go in the direction of the wind. I will always remember the image of Elijah Harper's courage and determination and his profound conviction", stated Ghislain Picard, Chief of the Assembly of the First Nations of Quebec and Labrador.[7]

On May 20, 2013, Harper's open casket was draped with the flag of Manitoba as he lay in state at the Manitoba Legislative Building in Winnipeg where hundreds of supporters filed through to pay their respects. A funeral service took place later that day at the Glory and Peace Church in Winnipeg. Harper was buried at Red Sucker Lake First Nation.[8]


  1. ^ a b Elijah Harper Biography
  2. ^ Geoffrey York, "Pawley criticized on Harper move", Globe and Mail, 24 November 1987, A11.
  3. ^ http://www.winnipegfreepress.com/opinion/analysis/when-harper-spoke-it-was-wise-to-listen-208618511.html
  4. ^ Elijah Harper. All Our Relations. CBC http://www.cbc.ca/player/play/2672432466 accessed March 29, 2016.
  5. ^ Cohen, Andrew. A Deal Undone: The Making and Breaking of the Meech Lake Accord, Vancouver/Toronto: Douglas & McIntyre, 1990.
  6. ^ a b "First Nation leader Elijah Harper, who scuttled Meech Lake accord, dies at age 64". The Province. Postmedia Network. Canadian Press. 2013-05-17. Retrieved 2013-05-17. 
  7. ^ "The Assembly of First Nations of Quebec and Labrador acknowledges the courage of Elijah Harper and offers its condolences to his family". Canada Newswire. 2013-05-17. Retrieved 2013-05-26. 
  8. ^ Lambert, Steve (2013-05-20). "Hundreds pay respects to Elijah Harper". Winnipeg, Manitoba: The Globe and Mail. Canadian Press. Retrieved 2013-05-26. 

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