We continue the focus on Indigenous leaders by shifting from leaders during Confederation, to a leader who influenced the signing of the Meech Lake Accord. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation put out a survey in late 2013 asking Canadians, “Which Canadians have inspired you the most over the last 150 years?”1 Nearly 12,000 individuals responded to the survey. CBC analyzed the data and released a “Top 10 Canadian Heroes List” in June of 2014. Topping the list was former premier Pierre Trudeau.
However, an issue arose over the complete omission of Indigenous Canadians and women from the list.2 The oversight sparked outrage among CBC Aboriginal, who put forth their own survey in response asking, “Who are your Indigenous heroes?”3 The responses gathered through social media, namely Facebook and Twitter, included several prominent Aboriginal heroes. Topping the list though was Elijah Harper, Manitoba’s only Indigenous MLA in 1990. He was paramount to resisting Quebec’s signing of the Meech Lake Accord without First Nations consent.4
Elijah Harper was born March 3, 1949, in Red Sucker Lake, Manitoba.5 He grew up in an Oji-Cree community roughly 700 kilometres north of Winnipeg, but was forcibly removed from his family to be placed in the residential school system.6 Harper studies at the University of Manitoba and became the elected leader of the Red Sucker Lake First Nation at age 29.7 To add to his impressive resume, Elijah Harper became the first Indigenous MLA in Manitoba in 1981.
While serving as a MLA in Manitoba, Elijah Harper was appointed as minister without portfolio for Native Affairs in 1986, and was promoted to Minister of Northern Affairs the following year.8 Although his political career was one of great triumph and recognition, 1990 would be Harper’s most memorable year in office. Harper’s political highlight was his historic efforts in blocking Quebec from singing the Meech Lake Accord without consulting Indigenous people first.
In order for Quebec to officially sign on to the new Constitution Act of 1982, both the federal government and all provinces needed to ratify the Meech Lake Accord.9 Gary Filmon, Manitoba’s premier at this time, required unanimous consent from all MLA’s in order to ratify the Meech Lake Accord.10 Harper and other Indigenous leaders, adamantly opposed the singing of the Accord because it did not guarantee rights to Indigenous individuals.11 Harper refused to consent each time the discussion arose. The ratification deadline passed and he still would not consent, so the Accord was never signed. His refusal and opposition brought attention to issues surrounding both the duty to consult First Nations people and Indigenous rights. Harper spent the remainder of his career working with Indigenous groups to increase support for First Nations rights.
It is unsurprising that Elijah Harper is recognized as an Indigenous hero among his own people, and other groups of Canadians. Shawn Atleo, the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, describes Harper’s work as helping to “lay a solid foundation” for Indigenous rights; hard work that continues in Canada today. Harper’s efforts and others following, do not go unnoticed.
1 The Canadian Press, “Top 10 Canadian heroes list includes Pierre Trudeau, Jack Layton”, CBC News (15 June 2014), online: <www.cbc.ca/news/canada/top-10-canadian-heroes-list-includes-pierre-trudeau-jack-layton-1.2676398>.
2 Kim Wheeler, “Top 10 indigenous heroes includes Elijah Harper, Alanis Obomsawin”, CBC News (18 June 2014), online: <www.cbc.ca/news/indigenous/top-10-indigenous-heroes-includes-elijah-harper-alanis-obomsawin-1.2678637>.
5 Tabitha Marshall, “Elijah Harper” in Canadian Encyclopedia (Historica Canada: 2015), online:
8 Gloria Galloway, “Elijah Harper, First Nations leader who brought down Meech Lake, dies at 64”, The Globe and Mail (17 May 2013), online: <www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/elijah-harper-first-nations-leader-who-brought-down-meech-lake-dies-at-64/article11988959/>.