Hundreds wait to pay respects to leader who blocked Meech Lake accord

WINNIPEG – Hundreds of people lined up inside the Manitoba legislature Monday to pay their respects to Elijah Harper, the aboriginal politician whose quiet but firm resistance to the Meech Lake constitutional accord became a symbolic moment for indigenous rights.

“He gave us all inspiration to know that it’s OK to say no sometimes,” Derek Nepinak, grand chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, said before taking his turn to walk by Harper’s casket.

“I think the legacy that he left will continue to inspire us and keep us on a good path.”

People young and old slowly made their way past the open casket, draped in a Manitoba flag and with an eagle-feather headdress sitting on top. Nearby were portraits of Harper with an eagle feather in his hand, similar to the one he held in 1990 inside the legislature chamber when he denied the unanimous consent needed to rush the accord through to final approval.

“I brought my niece to be exposed to aboriginal history. Elijah was a role model,” said Margaret Pollock, whose nine-year-old niece is set to attend a non-aboriginal school in Winnipeg for the first time this fall.

Harper was born on the Red Sucker Lake reserve in northern Manitoba, and like many of his generation, attended a residential school. Afterward, he furthered his education in Winnipeg and came across other future aboriginal leaders — Phil Fontaine, Ovide Mercredi, and Eric Robinson, who is Manitoba’s deputy premier and holds Harper’s former legislature seat.

“Elijah was always the quiet one in the crowd, he didn’t speak very much,” Robinson recalled Monday.

“You could tell that he had a quiet demeanour about him but you knew that the guy had more knowledge underneath that quiet exterior.”

Harper was elected chief of Red Sucker Lake in the late 1970s and was elected to the Manitoba legislature in 1981. Harper was in the NDP opposition benches during the federal government’s 1990 attempt to enact the Meech Lake accord, which had been crafted to win Quebec’s signature on the Constitution.

Brian Mulroney, who was prime minister at the time, was pressing dissenting premiers to go along with the accord and gave them a deadline to approve. Voting in Manitoba came late in the national debate.

Harper believed the deal gave his people short shrift.

Holding an eagle feather, Harper refused to allow rules to be waived to speed debate of the resolution supporting the accord. He did so despite pressure from federal officials and harsh criticism from some people.

“He stood firmly in his identity, in his roots,” Shawn Atleo, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, told reporters Monday.

“Those of us that are younger, we continue to stand in the shadow of great moments like that. Our work continues.”

Harper resigned from the legislature in 1992 and left the New Democrats a year later to run federally for the Liberals. He won a seat representing the sprawling northern Manitoba riding of Churchill.

Harper had been dealing with health issues for years and underwent a kidney transplant late last year. He died Friday morning in hospital of cardiac failure due to diabetes complications. He was 64.

His widow, Anita Olsen Harper, sat by his casket with other relatives Monday and accepted condolences from the long line of well-wishers.

“I’m very encouraged by it,” she later told reporters.

“I’m not at all surprised. People loved Elijah. They still do.”

A funeral was set to take place in Winnipeg on Monday night while a burial service is scheduled for Thursday in Red Sucker Lake.