The Land Without a Master Narrative, Part II

The Eagle Feather Symbolizes Courage

A truthful and reconciliatory realisation is necessary when looking back upon the newly founded Canada.  A Canada that had a lot of supposedly uninhabited land that the federal government had hoped could be put to use for farming.  Many of the earliest waves of immigrants that crossed the ocean to get to Canada were rewarded for their decision and were the benefactors of free land if they decided to move to out to the prairies.  However, Indigenous Canadians, including the Anishinaabe and Haudenosaunee that were also based west of Ottawa, were not afforded the same opportunities.  Neither did the original legislation that gave rise to Canada have any provisions for Indigenous Canadians, nor their interests, as was the case with English- and French-Canadians, except for being able to hunt on their traditional hunting grounds.

Part two of this three-part series will explore another champion for culture preservation, one who was a residential school survivor that would go on to become the first Indigenous Canadian to be a Member of the Legislative Assembly of Manitoba and later a Member of Parliament – the Oji-Cree, the Honorable Elijah Harper.

The boy from Red Sucker Lake

Elijah Harper was born in 1949 in Red Sucker Lake Manitoba, the second of thirteen children.  Harper’s early upbringings were inline with traditional Indigenous culture, where children are raised by their immediate family and in connection with their immediate communities.  The resilience and resolve that would define Harper’s life can be traced back to his early childhood, and throughout his transition into adulthood.

At the age of five, Harper had to be flown out of his reserve and to a hospital after he began having severe neck pain.  Doctors identified that Harper had contracted tuberculosis, and the next six months of his life were spent at a tuberculosis sanatorium until he was cured.  When Harper returned home, his ability to communicate in Cree seemed to have been affected, as his family did not always understand what he was trying to say.  Then three years later, Harper and his brother were sent off to residential school.  The boys did not want to go, but their father believed the story of how these schools were designed to help Indigenous boys function in the larger world.

The residential school experience was detrimental to Harper’s wellbeing, just like it was for every Indigenous Canadian child.  It was an experience comprised of dehumanization and depravity, and it was where many Indigenous Canadian children would have their lives taken away from them.

Residential schools would order that all Indigenous boys had to have their hair cut short and all were told that they would be punished if they spoke in their native tongue.  One incident that Harper and his classmates were forced to bear witness to involved the sexual degradation and humiliation of two teenage boys who attempted to run away from the school.  The two boys were caught and then made to bend over a table in class and to pull down their pants in front of all their peers, then they were whipped while the other children watched in silent horror.

Later in life, Harper shared that he too was sexually abused at the residential school, but the topic was too painful to discuss with anyone outside of those closest to him.  After surviving the residential school experience, Harper transitioned into the foster care system during high school and would go on to attend the University of Manitoba before pursuing an employment opportunity in community development work.

At the age of 29, Harper was elected Chief of Red Sucker Lake, he managed to bring in satellite dishes and significantly improve the winter roads.  There was an issue with the satellites, however.  They broke all of Ottawa’s broadcasting regulations because they broadcast exclusively American programming.  During Harper’s provincial nomination meeting, an NDP leader who flew to the remote reserve was surprised to see that no one showed up besides the two of them.  After raising issue with Harper, the situation was clarified.  The satellite dish was broadcasting from Detroit a John Wayne western film, and the room filled up immediately after the movie was over.

When Harper gave his maiden speech as a Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA), it was partly in Cree and the first time Cree was entered as a matter of record.  The topic of the speech included health outcomes, housing challenges, unemployment rates, and the legacy of residential schools as they related to Indigenous Canadians within his riding.

One of the early struggles for Harper as an MLA was his inconsistency with networking and public speaking.  If there was an Indigenous member in the audience, Harper would be magical, but if he was addressing an entirely white crowd then he would struggle.

One of Harper’s most significant and high-pressure moments was when he stood against the Meech Lake Accord, eagle feather in hand.  The result from that outcome was that major negotiations would never reoccur behind closed doors and more stakeholders would be involved in the negotiation process.  It was seen as an act of defiance against the political elite, and Harper brought the struggles of Indigenous Canadians to the forefront in a manner never seen before.  The Canadian Press voted him as a newsmaker of the year, while the Red Sucker First Nation named him honorary chief for life.  The Stanley Knowles Humanitarian Award was also awarded to Harper for embodying the spirit, dedication, and ideals he showed toward other people, and it was an award that was given to Nelson Mandela.  For Harper, however, the act of resistance against the Meech Lake Accord may have served as an internal triumph over the traumas of his past, and it was an empowering moment for all Indigenous Canadians across Canada.

In 1993, Harper switched to the Liberal party after resigning from the provincial parliament.  In Ottawa, Harper came to realize that Indigenous Canadian priorities were far from being top of the list of priorities for other Members of Parliament (MPs).  When the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples had issued a report that was shared with all MPs, it was Harper’s office where most of the reports ended up.  Harper and his staff often heard MPs tell them that the report was useless for them, and that Indigenous Canadians did not reside within specific ridings.

After life on Parliament Hill, Harper went on to be a desired speaker and he served as inspiration to countless numbers of Indigenous Canadians.  Perhaps the ripples in history that Harper created turned into a wave in 2021, when there was a record eleven Indigenous Canadians elected as MPs, and in 2023 Manitoba elected Wabanakwut “Wab” Kinew as the Premier of the Province.

Harper passed away in 2013, but the life he lived despite the colonizing conditions that were forced upon him with the residential school experience, continues to represent the highest of aspirations for others today.

Some things are going to be resolved but in order to talk freely or do things, you have to release yourself of those pains, of everyone.  No matter what race, color, or creed.  Many people felt that they could let go of the past, be released of the hurt and pain.  But still there is many that haven’t.”