When Elijah Harper passed away on May 17, 2013 I felt as though an arrow had pierced my heart. The man who inspired me to become what I am today was dead.
As a boy, I loved to read the news. I had a paper route and therefore a daily supply of current events and happenings. Day after day I looked at the pictures and skimmed the articles of the comings and goings of non-aboriginal society. But etched forever in my memory is the day I picked up my bundle of newspapers and saw a native man holding an eagle feather.
In the late '80s and early '90s it was not OK to be Native/Aboriginal/Indian and there was no such thing as "First Nations." You certainly didn't let anyone know if you were Aboriginal if you could avoid it, at least not in the city. But here was a man, on the front page, with long hair and an eagle feather under the headline "Elijah says no to Meech."
I read that article, and every article after it. Over the coming days, I would flip through the pages looking for any information I could find on Elijah. Who was he? Where did he come from? Why was he allowed to be an "Indian" in front of all the "whites"? What was "Meech"?
I learned that Elijah Harper was the first Native person elected to the Manitoba Legislature. He came from a northern Manitoba First Nation (just like me) and attended an Indian Residential School (like my family members) and was proud of his First Nations culture and heritage. I learned that the Meech Lake Accord was to be an amendment to the Canadian Constitution that, while recognizing the rights of French Canadians in Quebec, eroded the inherent treaty rights of Native Canadians. Elijah Harper said "no" to the accord and effectively blocked it. He proved to me, as a 12-year-old boy, that one man could make a difference. One man could change the world.
I will never forget the day I met Elijah, the man who would become my life-long hero. My mother woke me up one morning saying "Get up, we are going to see Elijah." On the way in, there was a man selling T-shirts that had all kinds of slogans. My mom asked me if I wanted one. As I put on my brand new blue T-shirt that said "Elijah Says No!" I marveled at the huge crowd of Native people carrying signs, eagle feathers and smiles on their faces. The drums boomed, the crowd sang loud and we all lined up to honour Elijah.
As I got closer and closer to the stage my heart was pounding and soon it was my turn to honour him. All I had to do was shake his hand and keep moving, but I froze. Elijah reached over, pulled my new T-shirt straight and read the slogan aloud. He laughed, I blushed, and he put his hand on my head and ruffled my hair. It seemed in that moment that he had blessed me. I felt acknowledged, accepted and finally, a member of the First Nations People.
From that day forward I was proud of who I am. I studied hard, set goals and planned for the future. I became an activist, joined Aboriginal youth groups and defended our inherent treaty rights with my voice and intellect. Ten years later, I was invited to speak at an Aboriginal Youth Conference in Red Sucker Lake, Manitoba. I was grown up now, out living the dream. Elijah was there and heard me speak. He invited me to his brother Saul's house and we talked about education, history and, of course, politics. It was my dream come true. When it was time to go, he said "Good luck. We need more young people like you."
I ran into him from time to time over the years at conferences, events, rallies and greeted him as a friend and mentor. As First Nations mourn the loss of one of our greatest leaders and heroes, we are slowly able to look to the future.
In my childhood, there was only one Elijah Harper. Today, because he inspired an entire generation of First Nations youth, there are thousands of us. Thousands of Aboriginal doctors, lawyers, accountants, authors, politicians and entrepreneurs who now know a simple truth: One person can change the world.