Tag Archives: Elijah Harper

Meech Failure Kicked Off ‘Indian Summer’

Within days of Meech's failure, the 78-day standoff between Mohawk Warriors and Canadian soldiers took hold in Oka, Que.

Within days of Meech’s failure, the 78-day standoff between Mohawk Warriors and Canadian soldiers took hold in Oka, Que.

Winnipeg Free Press

If Idle No More had a scrappy older brother, 1990’s ‘Indian Summer’ would be it. 

That historic summer started the moment Manitoba’s iconic MLA Elijah Harper clutched his eagle feather and helped kill the Meech Lake Accord in the province’s legislature.

By the time the leaves changed, Canada had been gripped by a 78-day stand off near Oka, Que., by the Mohawk community of Kanesatake and nationwide protests born of years of frustration. Scholars now contend that summer, especially the Oka crisis, was a “flashpoint event” in Canadian history.

“It demonstrated that we could take a stand together and we could make a difference. We made history,” said former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations Phil Fontaine of Meech’s defeat. “This was about having a very clear vision, knowing our place in Canada and (being) able to articulate very forcefully and clearly and respectfully the acceptance we were looking for from the rest of the country.”

If Meech proved First Nations wouldn’t be ignored, University of Manitoba political scientist Kiera Ladner said the Oka crisis a few weeks later demonstrated the true cost of ignoring indigenous peoples.

But, a generation later, indigenous people are not much closer to any real form of sovereignty.

Nearly all the issues at play during the summer of 1990 — outstanding land claims, control over resource development on traditional lands, genuine national consultation and everyday poverty and racism — still remain. Any moves toward indigenous self-government have been piecemeal and local — the Nisga’a Treaty in British Columbia and the Sioux Valley Dakota Nation agreement last year in Manitoba, a handful of incremental Supreme Court decisions that stop short of saying First Nations have an inherent right to self-government, local initiatives such as the east-side land-use planning process in Manitoba or even the stalled devolution of child welfare.

In fact, First Nations would argue that, for every step forward, there are steps back. Take for example the First Nations Financial Transparency Act. And, as during the Meech era, there’s significant dissent among indigenous groups. In particular, the Assembly of First Nations and its leadership are often at odds with the grassroots, including many in the Idle No More movement.

The kinds of conflicts that erupted in 1990 still erupt, with little framework to resolve them on a national scale. The idea that mega-constitional meetings might be used as a venue to establish a new relationship between Canada and its first peoples doesn’t appear to be on anyone’s radar.

Meech’s defeat gave rise to the 1992 Charlottetown Accord, another attempt to resolve long-standing disputes over the division of federal and provincial powers. That deal was defeated in a national referendum, but the process that led up to it was very different. This time, aboriginal leaders were at the table when the deal was hammered out. The failed accord also contained a clause approving in principle the concept of aboriginal self-government, and defining it, however imperfectly.

Had it passed, Charlottetown would have been a step forward for indigenous self-government, said Ladner.

Instead, said Fontaine and Ovide Mercredi, another Manitoba-born giant of the era, aboriginal people have yet to be officially recognized as of one of Canada’s founding partners. The status quo of Canada’s two founding nations prevails, and First Nations constitutional issues largely remain about jurisdiction. Are they a federal “problem” or a provincial one?

Meech was about the future, not just resistance to exclusion, Ovide Mercredi says.

Meech was about the future, not just resistance to exclusion, Ovide Mercredi says.

“Meech was about the future, not just resistance to exclusion on our part,” said Mercredi, who helped negotiate the Charlottetown Accord as national chief of the Assembly of First Nations. “And the country fell asleep and the leaders of exclusion took over and a vision of a better Canada with indigenous people helping to perfect it has been buried once again in ignorance and shame.”

Instead of endless constitutional debate, many indigenous leaders have turned their focus to documents that typically predate Canada’s collection of constitutional legislation — the treaties. Leaders such as Manitoba’s Derek Nepinak hold those documents as the basis for a modern relationship, but it’s often unclear what the treaties mean in a modern context. Treaty conflicts over land claims, promises for education and health services and resource development take years to resolve. Witness Kapyong Barracks, Winnipeg’s most visible relic of what several southern Manitoba First Nations say is a treaty promise unfulfilled.

In the meantime, defining exactly what self-government might mean remains largely the domain of academics. Is it the creation of a parallel system by individual nations, each with their own education, health, welfare and justice systems, and their own governments that exist, somehow, alongside Canada? Or, are First Nations a kind of third order of government similar to a province or a municipality? Or, since aboriginal peoples will always be Canadian, is it possible to create a common political culture, where indigenous values are embedded and enhanced?

While that debate takes place, largely beyond the public eye, Ladner and Fontaine note that indigenous people are focusing on economic power, and revitalizing their communities from within.

In the years since Meech, aboriginal people have made great strides in the business world, said Fontaine, who now operates his own consulting firm and is a special advisor to the Royal Bank of Canada. There are 40,000 businesses owned and managed by aboriginal people in Canada, he said. More indigenous people are graduating from high school and universities than ever before. They’re being appointed as judges, university presidents and getting elected to office in greater numbers.

And, noted Ladner, the new generation of indigenous activists are looking at rebuilding from the inside, beyond the constraints of Indian Act rules or endless negotiations with government over funding or control. That includes creating their own economic development opportunities such as urban reserves.

“There’s a different political goal than just constitutional change because there a recognition that Canada will never give over the power,” said Ladner. “Political activities are about rebuilding nations… There’s a ‘just do it’ approach.”

— Mary Agnes Welch, with files from Larry Kusch  



25 Years Since Elijah Harper Said ‘No’ To The Meech Lake Accord

Aboriginal leader Elijah Harper, a former Manitoba MLA and MP, played a key role in defeating the Meech Lake accord. Here, Harper holds an eagle feather for spiritual strength as he refused to support the accord in Winnipeg in 1990. (Wayne Glowacki/Winnipeg Free Press/Canadian Press)

Aboriginal leader Elijah Harper, a former Manitoba MLA and MP, played a key role in defeating the Meech Lake accord. Here, Harper holds an eagle feather for spiritual strength as he refused to support the accord in Winnipeg in 1990. (Wayne Glowacki/Winnipeg Free Press/Canadian Press)

CBC News

Retired indigenous leader Phil Fontaine remembers “a powerful moment for First Nations.”

It’s been 25 years since Elijah Harper held an eagle feather, stood in the Manitoba Legislature and quietly said no to the Meech Lake Accord.

The accord was a series of constitutional amendments aimed at keeping Quebec in Canada – but was fiercely opposed by indigenous leaders who felt it ignored their rights and place in this country.

Phil Fontaine was then Grand Chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs and a key player in the accord’s defeat. Fontaine says AMC had been looking for a legal way to challenge the accord but soon realized the solution had to be political.

Truth Reconciliation 20150602

Former Manitoba Grand Chief Phil Fontaine. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Fontaine says he called Elijah Harper, who was meeting with his constituents in northern Manitoba.

“I said, ‘look we have to meet to talk about the accord and we think you can play an important role in this,” he says.

According to Fontaine, the two arranged to meet in the restaurant of the Charter House hotel in downtown Winnipeg,

The accord required unanimous ratification by parliament and all 10 provincial legislatures. In Manitoba, the first ratification vote was set to take place on June 12, 1990 and was expected to be passed without any resistance.

If Harper voted against it, Fontaine said, the accord could be defeated.

That meeting between Fontaine and Harper lasted over an hour and Fontaine remembers Harper – then the only aboriginal MLA in Manitoba – feared his political career might suffer from going against the accord and the entire legislature. Harper was also dealing with a possible challenge to his leadership.

“I said, look, don’t worry about that. Just focus on this issue. This is the big issue,” Fontaine says.

On June 12, 1994, Fontaine says chiefs were meeting downtown and decided they wanted to be there when Harper voted no so dozens marched from their meeting to the legislature.

“But when we got to the legislature, up to the steps, we were met by security,” he says.

CBC footage from the time shows scuffles as those security guards try in vain to keep chiefs out.

“There was a real big push. Pascal Bighetty, who was a chief, his sports jacket was torn,” recalls Fontaine.

Eventually, the chiefs managed to push through and made their way to the gallery to witness Elijah Harper stand up and say no.

“It was an empowering moment,” Fontaine says. “This was a powerful moment for First Nations.”

Between June 12 and 21, Harper stood up with the feather and refused to support the accord 8 times. Soon, Newfoundland and Labrador followed suit and the accord withered and failed.

Fontaine says it was a turning point in history for indigenous people.

“We came to the realization very quickly that our voice mattered. We could make history, we could change the course of history. We knew and understood what was possible.”

There will be an event marking the 25th anniversary of Elijah Harper’s stand on the grounds of the Manitoba Legislature this Saturday.