Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

When Harper spoke, it was wise to listen

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Former chief, MLA and MP, Elijah Harper, who died Friday at age 64, is to be buried in his home community of Red Sucker Lake today.

It was all pre-arranged. The Meech Lake accord required unanimous consent from the Manitoba legislature and this was one of those rare times when Premier Gary Filmon and his Conservative government were in total agreement with the opposition NDP led by Gary Doer to vote "yes." The chorus of "aye" votes was rare and quite pleasing. But I will never forget the shocked, then confused look on Filmon's face when one voice firmly said "no!"

Elijah Harper is most famous for saying that one word and changing the course of Canadian history. And for far too many people, this is all that Elijah will be known for. But for those of us who learned early on to listen more closely, this man, who was raised by his grandparents on a trapline in northern Manitoba, was one of the most eloquent, in large part by being succinct, political spokespersons of all time; white, red, yellow or black.

I was taught how to listen to Elijah by Marion Ironquil Meadmore, another respected First Nations elder, when ad hoc groups led by the likes of a young Phil Fontaine, Bob Major, Bill Shead, Mary Richard et al "went up to P" (pool floor) at the old Northstar Inn to discuss treaty rights, self-government and the implications of such things as the Limestone Generating Station back in the 1970s.

Marion singled out Elijah and said to me,

"When this young fellow from Red Sucker Lake speaks, listen closely, because he speaks softly and only says what he needs to say to make his point. But whatever Elijah says will be useful because he carries a lot of knowledge and he is wise."

Elijah Harper went from being the chief of Red Sucker Lake to MLA for Rupertsland and a provincial cabinet minister. His political career hit some rough water when he was convicted of impaired driving, Elijah paddled through those rapids and rocks with some individual self-governance which underlines his character.

Elijah stopped drinking immediately after his arrest and never touched a drop of alcohol again. He also figured the six-month suspension on his driver's licence wasn't appropriate so he self-imposed a five-year sentence before he would get behind the wheel of a motor vehicle again.

The people who knew Elijah closely knew these principles. So it wasn't surprising when he recovered to be elected the member of Parliament for Churchill. He represented all of his constituents in northern Manitoba well in the House of Commons and he enhanced that outside the House by organizing a non-partisan, multi-denominational Sacred Assembly, which drew thousands of delegates to Ottawa to begin dealing with the healing and reconciliation Elijah recognized was needed between First Nations and mainstream Canadian society because of a dark chapter in our history that had been hidden from mainstream view.

Elijah's Sacred Assembly brought the tragedy of Indian Residential Schools to the forefront of Canadian society and, for the first time, national leaders of the Presbyterian, Catholic, Anglican and other church groups made formal apologies for the cultural genocide which had taken place.

Proof that Elijah could say in two sentences what other politicians would take two paragraphs to say was more than evident in the documentary Elijah commissioned me to produce; I didn't have to spend much time editing the interviews and speeches Elijah provided to that film.

The Sacred Assembly ended with a new covenant between national church and government groups and First Nations. Elijah would spend the rest of his life serving that sacred vow.

I didn't figure on producing any more films with Elijah, but then I noticed my mostly roly-poly friend was rapidly losing weight. When he was down to about 90 pounds, I asked Elijah what was going on and he told me he had no idea.

Elijah described a list of tests he had gone through (CT scan, MRI, EKG and about 10 more I forget) and then enlightened me about the possible illnesses he might have (ranging from cancer to anemia and about 20 more I forget) before describing the array of treatments he had undergone over a period of two to three years (medications, diets, acupuncture, aromatherapy and about 30 more I forget), but they couldn't find a cure and we feared we were going to lose our beloved colleague and friend.

Elijah went home to Red Sucker Lake. There, he prayed with his family (Elijah's father was a local preacher) and did some ceremony. After years of modern medicine and tests and treatments at hospitals and treatment centres which failed, Elijah regained his weight and strength and overall good health there on the 'Rez, which we documented in an episode of CBC's Man Alive series called Home Remedies.

So what happened? The rules of reporting, and my lack of medical knowledge, restricts me to the most basic observations. Elijah got very sick, he went through every known medical examination and treatment, and then he went home and he got better.

Elijah says he found out he had been "travailing." People who constantly meet or befriend or work with other people who have troubles or even illnesses, eventually take on those problems and become sick themselves.

By returning home to Red Sucker Lake, Elijah was able to pass those problems on to another power (God, Creator, the sacred grandfathers) and regain his health.

Elijah Harper was a very spiritual man. He was also a politician, a family man and a good friend. I am not going to argue with the teachings Elijah followed and shared.

In his own concise and soft-spoken way, Elijah Harper guided people gently to a higher understanding. And when he had to take a stand in a forceful way to keep this country from making a historical mistake, he made that stand in the simplest way.

"No" is all he said that day. But Elijah Harper said and did so much more during the 64 years he was with us.

Don Marks is a writer in Winnipeg and was a friend and colleague of Elijah Harper.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 23, 2013 A15

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