|Photo Courtesy of APTN-Aboriginal Peoples Television Network|
Elijah Harper was a member of the Red Sucker Lake First Nation, which is about 710 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg. Harper attended residential schools in Norway House, Brandon and Birtle, in Winnipeg and then secondary schools in Garden Hill and Winnipeg, Manitoba.
He studied at the University of Manitoba and began his long career in public service when he was elected chief of his community at the age of 29. In 1981, Harper was elected as an NDP member of the Manitoba legislative assembly for Ruperts Land, an office he held for 11 years. He was the first person elected from a First Nation to serve as an MLA.
In 1993, Harper was elected for one term as a Liberal member of Parliament for the Churchill riding. In January 1998, he served a term as commissioner for the Indian Claims Commission. He was also bestowed with the title of honourary chief for life by his reserve-Red Sucker Lake.
Harper was instrumental in defeating the Meech Lake Accord in 1982. He gained national fame when he stood up in the Manitoba Legislature and refused to support the Meech Lake Accord. His refusal to support the Meech Lake Accord effectively blocked the constitutional amendment package that was negotiated to gain Quebec’s acceptance of the Constitution Act of 1982.
Harper protested the accord because it failed to have input from First Nations peoples in Canada. The accord required ratification by all 10 provincial legislatures and Parliament, and Harper's action prevented Manitoba from doing so before the deadline.
With Elijah Harper standing up in protest of the Meech Lake Accord, it gave two very clear messages to the Canadian government. One was that if they could give Quebec distinct status, than it was important to include First Nations people because we have the inherent right to self government, self-determination, more so that then the people of Quebec, and secondly it made sure that First Nations peoples voices were heard in Ottawa.
What was the Meech Lake Accord:
The Meech Lake Accord was a set of failed constitutional amendments, proposed in the late 1980’s. A key objective of the Meech Lake Accord was to gain Quebec’s explicit acceptance of the Constitution Act, 1982.
The Meech Lake Accord consisted of amendments to the Canadian Constitution. The most contentious part of the agreement was recognizing Quebec as a distinct society within the Canadian federation. The distinct society clause provided constitutional recognition of Quebec in terms of both its culture and language, and the clause stated, “the constitution will be interpreted in a manner consistent with the recognition that Quebec “constitutes within Canada a distinct society.” (www.mapleleafweb.com)
The problem with a ‘distinct society’ clause meant that special status would be given to the people of Quebec. Many people felt that this was wrong because it would have provided recognition to Quebec and would weaken the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in Quebec (since in the future the Courts would need to interpret the Charter in a manner consistent with Quebec’s distinctiveness).
Opposition to the distinct society clause meant that Quebec would be placed above the rights of English and French speaking minorities, and for English and French speaking people outside of Quebec there was a fear that there would be fewer rights for those living outside of Quebec.
The Meech Lake Accord if implemented meant that Quebec would be given power in key areas. This meant:
• changes to the Senate, including those relating to its powers, method of selection, and provincial
• changes to representation within the House of Commons;
• changes to the Supreme Court of Canada;
• the establishment of new provinces; and,
• the expansion of existing provinces.
Additionally, the right of a province to opt-out of a constitutional amendment, limited in the 1982 Constitution to matters of education and culture, was expanded to include all areas related to the division of powers between the federal and provincial governments.
The failure of the Meech Lake Accord illustrated the difficulties of achieving constitutional reform under the new amending formula found in the Constitution Act, 1982. If the Meech Lake Accord demonstrated the difficulty of achieving constitutional reform, it also illustrated that future efforts would need to be more open, and be inclusive of everyone especially of the First Nations peoples of Canada.
R.I.P. Elijah Harper, you were a warrior of the people and a role model for us all.