It was 12:30 pm on Friday, June 22, 1990. Elijah Harper, from his seat in the Manitoba legislature, holding an eagle feather his older brother Saul had found near Red Sucker Lake, said, "No," when the speaker asked for unanimous consent for the introduction of the Meech Lake Accord. With that one word, with his one vote, he killed the Meech Lake Accord, the federal government's proposed 'solution' to the political crisis in Canada at the time.
Elijah Harper, an Ojibway-Cree from Red Sucker Lake in Northern Manitoba, was born in 1949, the second of 14 children. He was raised by his grandparents, who followed traditional spiritual beliefs. When he was eight he was sent away to school. He returned home eight years later to become a trapper. Like many of the children of his generation, he had been forced by the church and the administration of the residential schools to assimilate, to become 'white'. The eight years away had distanced him from his people. He was stubborn, so stubborn that he refused to do what was expected of him by the larger white society of the day. He returned to continue his education. He studied at the University of Manitoba, where he met another native, Ovide Mercredi. Soon, Harper and Mecredi enlarged their circle to include Phil Fontaine and Moses Okimaw. They formed a native association and made the university's administration recognize them. They made the engineering association apologize for producing a satirical newspaper filled with pictures of drunken Indians.
Elijah Harper went home without his degree. He worked to become Chief of his band. In 1981, he became the first treaty Indian to be elected to the Manitoba legislature. He was re-elected in 1982 and served in the cabinet.
The minute Harper saw the draft of the Meech Lake Accord, he called an old friend, Gordon Mackintosh, who had once been clerk of the legislature. It came to light that the Filmon government had incorrectly introduced the motion. Harper carried it as far as he could, and surprised everyone when he made it to the end.
Elijah Harper's problem with Meech Lake was simple: it completely ignored the aboriginal people of Canada. Contrived in secret by the Prime Minister and the 10 premiers, it perpetuated the political myth that Canada only had two founding nations - French and English. Aboriginal people were not even mentioned in the definition of defining characteristics of Canada. Indian leaders had not been consulted during the drafting process. Aboriginal people across Canada desperately wanted the Accord dead, but Elijah Harper was the only one who had the opportunity to do so.
The PMO was so scared that Harper would kill the process that they sent a delegation to persuade him to drop his opposition. He could not convince them that he only met with them out of politeness; that he would not change his mind. He had been one of the chiefs in a delegation to London to meet with the Queen to ask/ensure that aboriginal people had fair representation in the charter of rights in 1982. He had declined an invitation from the Queen to attend the signing ceremony in Ottawa of the Charter. He was not going to change his mind in this. For a week in the legislature, he demanded that the government obey its own procedures in regards to Meech Lake. Those procedures required unanimous consent for the Accord to be introduced into the legislature. Elijah Harper said no, on the last day of the deadline for ratification. Manitoba could not pass the Accord. Without the consent of the 10 provinces, the Accord was dead.
Since 1990, Elijah Harper has been active in the political scene in Manitoba and Canada. In 1990, the Red Sucker Lake First Nation bestowed on him the title of Honorary Chief for life, and he received the commemorative medal of Canada from the Governor General. In 1993, Mr. Harper was elected as Liberal Member of Parliament for the Churchill constituency in northern Manitoba. He held that seat for one term. In the 2000 federal election, he ran again under the Liberal platform in the Manitoba riding of Churchill, but he failed to win the seat from NDP incumbent Bev Desjarlais. More recently, a grassroots movement is afoot to have Elijah Harper appointed to the Canadian Senate.