Elijah Harper, who scuttled Meech Lake, dies at age 64

WINNIPEG – Elijah Harper, who became a symbol of power for Canadian aboriginals when he helped scuttle the Meech Lake constitutional accord, has died.

Harper’s family says he died this morning of cardiac failure due to diabetes complications.

Harper, who was 64, was a politician and aboriginal leader for much of his life, and was best-known for his role in blocking the accord in 1990.

“Elijah was a wonderful man, father, partner. He was a true leader and visionary in every sense of the word,” the family said in a statement.

“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.”

The soft-spoken former chief of the Ojibwa-Cree Red Sucker Lake Indian band in Manitoba was an NDP opposition member of the legislature when he prevented the accord from being ratified by Ottawa’s deadline.

He said the deal, crafted to win Quebec’s signature on the Constitution, ignored aboriginal rights. Last-minute scrambling by federal officials failed to appease Harper and other native leaders.

Brian Mulroney, who was prime minister at the time, was applying pressure on dissenting premiers to go along with the accord by approving it in their legislatures. Voting in Manitoba came late in the national debate.

Harper refused to allow legislature rules to be waived to speed debate of the resolution. He delayed it long enough to make it impossible to meet the deadline.

Pictures of Harper, clutching an eagle feather as he repeatedly and simply said “No” in the legislature, were flashed across the country as the clock ticked down.

Someone even wrote a song about his stand.

“I stalled and killed it because I didn’t think it offered anything to the aboriginal people,” Harper said simply of his decision.

He was voted The Canadian Press newsmaker of the year in 1990 for his actions, which helped propel native issues to the top of the political agenda — at least briefly.

He was the first status Indian elected to the Manitoba legislature where he served from 1981 to 1992. That included a two-year stint as minister of native affairs in former NDP premier Howard Pawley’s cabinet. Harper’s duties were interrupted briefly when he sought counselling for drunk driving.

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

He had some well-publicized financial problems. He was sued by creditors as well as his former wife. In 1992, two years after their marriage of 17 years collapsed, Elizabeth Harper said she had to go on welfare to supplement her meagre child-support payments for two sons and two daughters.

Harper had health issues as well. He became ill in the fall of 1994 when he was struck with a mysterious malady that doctors and native healers were at a loss to explain.

Harper, one of 13 children, was an intensely private man. It took years before he would even reveal his age to interviewers.

Despite spending much of his life as a civil servant or politician, the man who was born on a trapline frequently sought solace from the pressures of political life by returning to the bush to hunt.

His biographer, Pauline Comeau, once said that although Harper wasn’t acting on his own in 1990, that in no way diminished the significance of his deed.

“In that world it was a collective effort and he played his role,” Comeau said in an interview shortly after her 1993 book “No Ordinary Hero” was published.

Following his active career in public service, Harper spent much of the rest of his life visiting First Nations, meeting with indigenous leaders across North America, working with charities and doing international humanitarian work.

“Elijah will also be remembered for bringing aboriginal and non-aboriginal people together to find a spiritual basis for healing and understanding,” his family said.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.