Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor

HARPER, ELIJAH (b. 1949)

As the Manitoba legislature's only Aboriginal member, Elijah Harper played a major role in defeating the Meech Lake Accord. A Cree Indian, Elijah was born in his parents' log cabin on March 3, 1949, at Red Sucker Lake near the Manitoba and Ontario border. One of thirteen children, he spent much time with his paternal grandparents, living in their home but seeing his parents everyday. When he was five years old, he became ill and spent six months under the auspices of the Indian Affairs medical staff without any contact with his parents. He left home to pursue an education, marrying during his second year as a university student in Winnipeg. After being active in Native organizations and issues, he and his family returned home, where he was elected chief of Red Sucker Lake in 1978. Three years later he was elected as a New Democrat member for the vast Rupert's Land riding, with about 70 percent of the vote. From his remote reservation he forced Aboriginal issues into the constitutional debate.

Attempting to accommodate Quebec and preserve Canada, the Meech Lake Accord proclaimed that Canada had two distinct founding nations. Harper agreed that Quebec's society was distinct but regarded the exclusion of Native peoples from Canada's founding nations as offensive, as did most Native organizations. Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and the provincial premiers signed the Meech Lake Accord on June 9, 1990. After the signing ceremony the legislatures of Manitoba, Newfoundland, and New Brunswick faced a twoweek deadline to approve. Harper delayed the vote on the accord forty-eight hours, and a procedural mistake also delayed the accord's introduction to the Manitoba legislature. When debate extension required unanimous consent, Harper again objected, preventing a vote before the deadline expired. His quiet refusal, with an eagle feather in hand, embodied Native resentment over recent and historic mistreatment. Harper became a national symbol for Native issues. He is also a controversial figure, however, and at times he has appeared to be prone to political self-destruction, such as when he refused to take a Breathalyzer test following a minor traffic accident.

John M. Pederson Mayville State University

Cohen, Andrew. A Deal Undone: The Making and Breaking of the Meech Lake Accord. Vancouver: Douglas and McIntyre, 1990.

Comeau, Pauline. Elijah: No Ordinary Hero. Vancouver: Douglas and McIntyre, 1993.

Hager, Barbara. Honour Songs. Vancouver: Raincoast Books, 1996.

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