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Mackintosh remembers a ‘great Canadian’

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Since the death of Elijah Harper, much has been written about his role in Canadian history and politics.

But for St. John’s MLA Gord Mackintosh, Manitoba’s most influential aboriginal politician left much more of a personal impact.

"I was his advisor, but he quietly, and without any announcement, had over time become my advisor," Mackintosh said in an interview at his Main Street constituency office last week.

"I may not be in politics and public life without his inspiration."

Harper, the first treaty Indian to be elected to the Manitoba legislature in 1981, died May 17. He was 64.

Mackintosh will mark 20 years in office this fall, but his relationship with Harper goes back another decade.

The two first met in 1981, Mackintosh a legislature clerk, Harper a rookie MLA.

The friendship took off nine years later, in June 1990, when Harper called on Mackintosh, then working as a private lawyer, for advice about the Meech Lake Accord — constitutional amendments at the time recognizing Quebec as a distinct society within Canada.

Harper opposed the deal because it didn’t include similar recognitions for aboriginals, who had been in the country for thousands of years before the French, Mackintosh said.

Unanimous consent in the legislature was needed to debate and vote on the accord, but Mackintosh found the motion hadn’t been properly introduced in the house. So, he formed an argument that allowed Harper to stall debate for days and kick the accord out of the legislature mere days before the federal deadline requiring the accord be ratified by the provinces.

"The threat at the time was that Canada would fall apart if Meech Lake wasn’t ratified," Mackintosh said.

"There was always that nagging question, have we ruined the country?

"There were just a few of us in the room (afterward) and Elijah was just sitting by himself, very solemn. I went up to him and asked what he was thinking," Mackintosh continued.

"He said, 'I just don’t know if I’m going to continue in politics. I don’t know if I’ll run again. I think I might resign.' 

"And I said, "Oh, come on, this is all going to work out. What would you do anyway?' And he said: 'procedural advisor,'" Mackintosh laughed.

"(Elijah) was comfortable in his own skin because he knew what he was advancing was right.

That aboriginals had to be recognized and injustices had to be rectified."

It was a time of intense pressure, Mackintosh recalled. One Harper calmly endured despite death threats from across the deeply divided country, while Mackintosh’s wife, Margaret, went into labour during 11th hour negotiations with the federal government to get Harper and the rest of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs on board to approve the accord.

And so, they named their son Gordon Elijah. Harper, in turn, gave their son the eagle feather he famously held in his hand while saying ‘no’ to the accord.

"Those were two weeks that became life changing," said Mackintosh, who helped carry Harper’s coffin during his funeral in Red Sucker Lake, Man., last week.

Two years later, in 1992, Mackintosh’s law career was humming and he was asked to run for the NDP in St. John’s.

He turned to Harper for advice.

"He replied: ‘go to the bush,’" Mackintosh recalled.

"I knew what he meant. Being from Fort Frances, I know how when you go to the bush, things do become very clear and you can make some good decisions."

Growing up, Mackintosh said his mother instilled in him a respect for aboriginals. But working directly with Harper and other Manitoba chiefs in the midst of Meech Lake magnified that respect through a political lens.

"The well-being of this province in no small way depend on how well we work with aboriginal people in this province," Mackintosh said, rattling off a list of accomplishment he’s made as an MLA, including recognizing Métis hunting rights, "dusting off "the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry, and introducing legislation eliminating legal time limits for residential school abuse.

"Elijah was a great Canadian because he helped strengthen the country by raising awareness of the critical importance of the imperative that we must work in new ways with Aboriginal Peoples. They have to have opportunities and barriers broken down to their full participation in our economy."
Twitter: @timesWPG

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