Chief Justice Murray Sinclair, chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, remembered former Cree leader Elijah Harper during the opening of the second day of a Residential School Conference taking place in Williams Lake.
“It is with sadness that we tell you this morning we received news just before sunrise of the passing of Elijah Harper last night in Ottawa,” Sinclair said. “Elijah was a good friend to Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people across the country.”
Sinclair said Harper is well-remembered for the stand that he took on the Meech Lake Accord, asserting that all across the country not enough recognition was being given to the state of Aboriginal people.
“He would not consent to the constitutional process in place before him.”
Harper’s stance created “a lot of pressure” for him and placed demands on him, and comments addressed toward him that were challenging.
“I’m sure they had a long term effect upon his health. He had not been in good health for the last few months, but his death was still an unexpected event.”
On behalf of the commission and all of the people attending the conference in Williams Lake, Sinclair expressed condolences to Harper’s family, close friends and his birth community of Red Sucker Lake First Nation, 700 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg.
Steve Basil of Bonaparte First Nation smudged the room and people who felt the need to be smudged in honour of Harper’s death.
“I’m sure Elijah would ask you to be strong,” Sinclair told the crowd. “He would encourage you to continue your own healing and take care of yourselves in terms of your own health. Take care of your families and do what you can to strengthen your communities. Those were issues he was dedicated to through the course of his life time.”
National Chief Shawn A-in-Chut Atleo, Assembly of First Nations, paid homage to Harper before speaking to the conference in Williams Lake.
“I join the commissioner on behalf of First Nations from coast to coast to coast acknowledging the passing of the late Elijah Harper. I express the deepest of empathy and sympathy to his family.”
Harper’s passing is a reminder of the sacredness of life offered to people on earth, Atleo said.
“We all have our teachings when these moments arrive. We may speak different languages and our cultures might look different in ceremony, but I have had a deep privilege to witness and continue to learn from so many Indigenous people across the country to know that our teachings are strong and support us in moments like this.”
“As Harper stood there with his feather to say “no” to a move by Canada that he felt strongly would not let Aboriginal voices be heard, he gave a powerful message that it was OK to say “no.”
“It’s OK to say no to the status quo. We also know that when he left politics he was saying yes to healing and reconciliation. I express my deepest honour and respect to the late Elijah Harper for the legacy that he has left all of us. Thank you for what you have done for our people. You will be missed. You will not be forgotten,” Atleo said.
Harper attended residential schools in Norway House, Brandon and Birtle, and then secondary schools at Garden Hill and Winnipeg.
He studied at the University of Manitoba and began his long career in public service when he was elected chief of his community at the young age of 29.