Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Gentle, humble native leader who made history lies in state

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It wasn't until she saw hundreds lining up at the Manitoba legislature on Monday afternoon to pay their respects to her grandfather that the magnitude of Elijah Harper's life hit 17-year-old Anna Harper.

"I knew he was important," said the Ottawa teen, taking photos of the young and the old, from different races and backgrounds, who came to honour the iconic aboriginal leader from Manitoba whose body lay in state.

"I didn't know he had such an impact," Anna said. "I know another side of him -- like eating turkey with him at Thanksgiving and watching the hockey game."

Her grandfather was an avid Toronto Maple Leafs fan, she said.

A statement his family released on Friday said Elijah Harper died in Ottawa from cardiac failure related to complications from diabetes.

His body lay in state Monday afternoon, and a memorial service was held Monday evening at the Glory and Peace Church on Main Street.

'He's had a great, positive effect on people. He's mentored and been a role model for so many. He's one of the first aboriginal people to speak up for our rights to be recognized' -- daughter Holly Harper

A burial service will take place Thursday in Red Sucker Lake where Harper was born and was once chief of the Ojibwa-Cree Red Sucker Lake First Nation.

His most famous and longest-lasting legacy came in June 1990, when he held up an eagle feather in the Manitoba legislature and said "no" to allowing the Meech Lake accord to come to a vote in the house. The vote required unanimous consent and Harper's opposition is recognized as one of the factors that killed the constitutional amendments being pushed by then-prime minister Brian Mulroney.

He was named The Canadian Press newsmaker of the year in 1990 for his vote and in 1991 received the Stanley Knowles Humanitarian Award. The moment was later immortalized in the CTV movie Elijah, released in 2007.

"He's a man I look up to," said James Harper, 18, a distant nephew who was an extra in the movie that was filmed in Manitoba, including scenes inside the legislature.

"One action had a profound impact. It was helpful for all indigenous people across Canada."

Alex Thomas, 15, from Red Sucker Lake, read about his uncle Elijah in a social studies book.

"I just want to be like him. He was a good person," Thomas said, standing across from his uncle's open casket draped with the Manitoba flag and a ceremonial headdress.

The flag of the Island Lake Tribal Council was draped over top of the closed casket and the Manitoba flag at the memorial Monday night.

Monday at the legislature, Assembly of First Nations Chief Shawn Atleo paid his respects, as well as Manitoba Grand Chief Derek Nepinak.

Nepinak said Elijah Harper taught a very valuable lesson.

"Once in awhile, it's OK for indigenous people to say no," said Nepinak. "... No matter how difficult and how unpopular a decision might be, with respect to such profound processes as constitutional reform paving way for future generations of our people.

"If they're not inclusive of indigenous perspectives or a respectful process to create legitimacy in a future Canadian Constitution, then we're going to have to say no. I think we're already seeing some of that legacy play itself out."

Justice Murray Sinclair, who led the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, waited in line with hundreds of others to sign guest books set up at two tables.

The wait in line was so long, Viola Ross's bad knees forced her to find a bench.

"He stood for us people of Canada," said Gods River resident Ross, 56, who was at the legislature with her husband and grandchildren, aged 12 and six. She wanted her grandkids to remember the man to whom hundreds paid tribute. She remembered meeting him at a gathering on reserve when Harper was a campaigning politician.

"I don't think he had any enemies. I think he was a nice man," she said.

Elijah Harper's daughter was feeling the love for her father Monday at the legislature.

"It's quite overwhelming," said Holly Harper. "I was so glad to see so many people come.

"We still have to take him home and knowing that people are sending prayers and thinking of us means a lot," she said as traditional drummers and singers performed in the background at the legislature.

"He's had a great, positive effect on people. He's mentored and been a role model for so many. He's one of the first aboriginal people to speak up for our rights to be recognized."

carol.sanders@freepress.mb.ca

Hundreds of mourners from across the city, the province and Canada lined up to pay their final respects at the legislature where the body of Elijah Harper lies in state.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 21, 2013 A3

History

Updated on Tuesday, May 21, 2013 at 6:40 AM CDT: replaces photo, adds slideshows

7:46 AM: adds video, removes one slideshow

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