OTTAWA – Well-respected Manitoba aboriginal leader Elijah Harper has died.
Harper was 64.
He passed away early this morning from a heart attack due to complications from diabetes.
Harper’s wife, Anita Olsen Harper, his children Bruce and Holly, stepchildren Karen Lawford, Dylan, Gaylen and Grant Bokvist, released a statement.
"Elijah was a wonderful man, father, partner. He was a true leader and visionary in every sense of the word. 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. Elijah will also be remembered for bringing Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people together to find a spiritual basis for healing and understanding. We will miss him terribly and Love him forever."
Harper was diagnosed with kidney failure due to his diabetes about six years ago and has been on dialysis ever since. He underwent a kidney transplant just before Christmas.
However his death was quite sudden and unexpected, said Darcy Wood, an aboriginal leader from Manitoba who has known Harper since the 1980s.
"He was a very down-to-earth person," said Wood.
Harper was raised by his grandparents in Red Sucker Lake and spent much of his childhood on trap lines. He also attended residential schools and eventually the University of Manitoba.
Wood said Harper’s illness did not slow him down and he continued to travel and do humanitarian work.
He was the first Treaty Indian to be elected as a provincial politician, and Wood said Harper always encouraged indigenous leaders to participate in mainstream politics.
"He was a pioneer in a lot of ways," said Wood. "It is a huge loss."
Harper was born in Red Sucker Lake, and became chief of the reserve when he was just 29 years old. He went on to be an NDP MLA and MP from Manitoba, including sitting briefly in the cabinet of Manitoba Premier Howard Pawley.
Harper’s most well-known moment however was when he stood in the Manitoba Legislature in 1990, held up a single eagle feather, and voted no to the Meech Lake Accord. His vote killed Meech Lake, and led to him being chosen as Newsmaker of the Year in 1990.
Harper has long been considered one of the most well-respected aboriginal leaders in Canada.