With his waist-length black hair tied back in braids or a ponytail, NDP MLA Elijah Harper strikes a distinctive profile in the Manitoba legislature. Until recently, few observers would have predicted that the soft-spoken former Cree chief would hold Canada’s constitutional future in his hands. Yet as last week ended, Harper’s use of procedural delaying tactics threatened to prevent the Manitoba government from ratifying the Meech Lake accord before its June 23 deadline. At the same time, it became clear that Harper was speaking for aboriginal Canadians from far beyond his own riding who want their rights, as well as those of Quebec’s “distinct society,” formally recognized in the Constitution. Declared Georges Erasmus, the Ottawa-based national chief of the Assembly of First Nations: “Elijah had always intended to vote against the accord and show his support for native people. But we never expected to get this chance.”
Erasmus and other native leaders, eager to take advantage of the unexpected opportunity, quickly offered Harper advice and support. In Ottawa, Erasmus reiterated his group’s demand for constitutional concessions. In addition to a formal recognition of aboriginal rights in the body of the Constitution, natives have sought a guarantee that they will be given a role in future First Ministers’ conferences affecting native rights. And in Winnipeg, the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, representing the province’s 46,000 Indians, made it clear that they were unwilling to allow their concerns to be put off until the future. Said Philip Fontaine, leader of the Manitoba Chiefs: “We have trusted before and we have been sold out every time. We don’t want to be sold out this time.”
For his part, Harper sometimes appeared uncomfortable at the attention created by his actions. The quiet-voiced father of four was
first elected in 1981 to represent the sprawling, mostly native northern riding of Rupertsland. Under former NDP premier Howard Pawley—one of the accord’s original signatories—he served as minister for native affairs. But since Pawley’s government fell in March, 1988, Harper has been a low-key backbencher who attracted attention only when he joined the successful demands for a provincial inquiry into the fatal 1988 shooting of his cousin J. J. Harper by Winnipeg police. Last week, however, Harper said that his protest on behalf of native people was aimed directly at Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. “It would be wise for the Prime Minister to call the leader of the Manitoba Assembly of Chiefs,” said Harper, “because the chiefs would have to listen to whatever offer he makes.” At the very least, Manitoba’s only native MLA had ensured that his voice could not be ignored.
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