Former Canadian politician and First Nations band chief Elijah Harper passed away yesterday of heart failure. He was 64.
A Cree Indian, Harper was born on the Red Sucker Lake Reserve in Northern Manitoba. At the age of 29, Harper became the reserve’s chief.
In 1981, Harper became the first Aboriginal elected to the Manitoba legislature under the NDP banner. The NDP under Howard Pawley unseated the Tory government of Sterling Lyon in that election. Pawley elevated Harper to his cabinet after the NDP’s re-election in 1986. Harper left cabinet the following year following a DUI incident but was re-appointed before the end of 1987. The Tories regained power in Manitoba in 1988 relegating Harper to the opposition benches.
But it was as a member of the opposition where Harper would wield his power. That power would be shortlived but for two weeks in June 1990, Harper was the most powerful man in Canada as he singlehandedly blocked the implementation of the Meech Lake Accord.
Three years earlier, Tory Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and the ten provincial Premiers drew up a constitutional reform package that would bring Quebec into Canada’s constitution which had been brought into being in 1982 without Quebec’s signature. These reforms were known as the Meech Lake Accord and were to be ratified by the Canada’s Parliament and the ten provincial legislatures. This had to be done by June 23, 1990.
Manitoba was the only province that had not ratified the Meech Lake Accord. Newfoundland had earlier approved the accord but then rescinded their approval. The Liberal government of Clyde Wells thought Meech gave Quebec special status at the expense of the other provinces.
As for Harper, his objection to Meech Lake was that it excluded Aboriginals from the constitutional process altogether. Armed with only a feather, Harper utilized a parliamentary procedural tactic and would not give his consent for the Manitoba legislature to debate the Meech Lake Accord. Debate in the legislature requires unaminous consent. June 23, 1990 came and went. Manitoba did not ratify Meech and Meech Lake was dead.
For his part, Mulroney pinned the blame of Meech’s defeat on Wells because he had promised to hold another vote in the Newfoundland House of Assembly but cancelled the vote at the last minute. It would not have mattered if Wells had held the vote, Meech was dead the moment Harper said no. However, it would not have been politically viable to expend his wrath on the soft spoken Harper.
In 1993, Harper moved from provincial to federal politics winning a seat in the House of Commons as a Liberal, defeating New Democrat Rod Murphy during Jean Chretien’s sweep to power. This alienated Harper’s one time allies in the NDP. Yet the Liberals didn’t embrace Harper either especially the Quebec caucus who reviled him. Harper was relegated to the backbenches and was defeated in the 1997 federal election by Bev Desjarlais of the NDP. Although an admired figure in most of Canada, Harper would never regain the level of influence he had in those two weeks 23 years ago.
A made for TV film aired titled Elijah aired in Canada in 2007.