It was a blow to hear of Elijah Harper’s death on May 18 at the age of 64. He will be remembered for his courage and his actions, above all for his role in opposing the Meech Lake Accord 23 years ago. That moment became a turning point in Canadian history. For those who were too young to have absorbed this dramatic story, I will explain.
The Meech Lake Accord was an constitutional amendment negotiated by the federal government, then led by Progressive Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, with the provinces in 1987 in order to win Quebec’s ratification of Canada’s Constitution. Quebec had refused to sign the constitution when it was repatriated from Great Britain in 1982 by Pierre Elliot Trudeau’s Liberal government.
The Accord would have made five main modifications to the Canadian constitution: it would recognize Quebec as a “distinct society”; grant a veto over future constitutional amendments to all provinces; allow provinces to opt out of future federal programs while receiving financial compensation; allow for provincial input in the appointment of senators and Supreme Court judges; and, finally, give the provinces a measure of power over immigration.
However, unanimous consent from Manitoba MLAs was needed to bypass a requirement for public consultation under Manitoba statutes, a process that would have prolonged Manitoba’s approval beyond the time limit allowed for ratification of the Accord by all the provinces. At this crucial point in time, a lone MLA in the Manitoba legislature raised an eagle feather eight times between June 12 and June 21, 1990, at each occasion that the Legislature Speaker asked if there was unanimity to proceed, and said, “No, Mr. Speaker.”
This man was Elijah Harper, who stayed true to his principles despite immense political and personal pressure. His motivation to resist arose from the fact that the Meech negotiations and agreement ignored and snubbed Canada’s First Nations, without whom an independent Canada would never have had the chance to exist.
With the support of First Nations across Canada, Harper opposed the Accord because it did not guarantee rights to Aboriginal peoples. Harper often said this support gave him the strength to resist the pressure and say “No”. He showed that one person could, in rare moments, embody the will of an entire people and change the course of history.
Elijah Harper died of cardiac failure due to complications from diabetes. His wife, Anita Olsen Harper, and his family described him in a statement as a wonderful man, father and partner. “He was a true leader and visionary in every sense of the word,” they affirmed. “He will have a place in Canadian history, forever, for his devotion to public service and uniting his fellow First Nations with pride, determination and resolve.”
Harper once explained his actions by saying, “It wasn’t done out of being negative, or out of spite, or anything. We were just trying to be recognized for our rightful place in Canada.”
Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come said, “Elijah was a true pioneer and a peaceful warrior on behalf of Aboriginal peoples throughout Canada. His courage and his commitment to defending the rights of our peoples was an inspiration to us all. His humility and his quiet determination to do the right thing at a critical moment in the history of Canada, and despite all the pressures on him to do otherwise, mark him as a genuine hero not only for Aboriginal peoples but for all Canadians who value justice and honesty.”
Elijah Harper will be missed but never forgotten.