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Elijah's influence lives on in all of us.

There's always a devastating silence when heroes leave. It's as if the universe recognizes a profound gap in energy and slows down to honor it. It's the sense that something significant and special has been removed and, for a moment, we are lessened by its absence. But equally true is the fact that we move on from it, that we use its lessons and teachings to fill us and make us more.

When Elijah Harper died last week that's how it felt. People everywhere stopped what they were doing and remembered. They felt the sudden jarring absence. They recognized that someone truly heroic had departed and they mourned. They were lessened. It wasn't just Aboriginal people but every day Canadians of all stripes and backgrounds understood the nature of the loss because Elijah Harper was, above everything, a Canadian hero.

When he stopped the Meech Lake Accord in its tracks he showed Canada the power of the right-minded citizen in doing so, he raised the profile of Native people across the country and showed our neighbors how politically savvy, astute and powerful we are. Holding his eagle feather aloft and quietly saying "No" resulted in him becoming a resonating national image. It was beyond politics. It was spiritual.

The Meech Lake Accord failed to recognize aboriginal rights. The Mulroney government of the time wanted to push it through but required the ratification of all the provinces in order to accomplish that. With the careful advice and backing of Native leaders, Harper understood that one man with one vote had the power to derail it. Everyone who saw the footage of him casting his dissenting vote in the Manitoba legislature was touched and moved by his gentle, elegant, defiant "No."

He was the first treaty person to be elected to the provincial legislature after acting as chief of his reserve community. Later, after the Meech Lake Accord was defeated, he became a member of the House of Commons representing Rupertsland.

In everything he did he carried the best interests and dreams of Canada's Aboriginal people with him. He was a wireless and dedicated worker who inspired thousands of Native youth across the country.

Elijah Harper taught us that No meant yes. No to government overstepping and overlooking of our legitimate concerns and aspirations and yes to our own empowerment, sovereignty, cultures, traditions, ceremonies, languages, spirituality and our collective ongoing journey to the ultimate expression of ourselves as distinct peoples. He said no to exclusion and yes to bridging the differences that keep us separated as members of the human family.

Canadians learned a lot from his stand. They saw the example of good governance. They saw the fortitude of a man bent on doing the right thing. They saw the political machine of Canada ground to a halt by one elected official's determination to serve those who elected him.

He died of cardiac arrest brought on by complications of diabetes. He was 64. He was a family man, a community leader and a spiritualist. His clarion call to people to gather in Ottawa and the Sakgeeng First Nation in Manitoba for his spiritual gatherings, called Sacred Assemblies, were groundbreaking events.

People of all nations gathered to find ways and means for reconciliation and harmony. They were powerful gatherings and many people took his ideas home to implement in their communities.

He was a hero. When I attended a national conference with him in Quebec City in 1992 I was a nationally-recognized journalist. We were on the same panel discussing national issues pertinent to Aboriginal people. He was gracious, patient, kind and generous. Hearing him speak in his hushed but strong voice and seeing the effect that it had on the room taught me a great deal about how to present prickly issues. I carry a little of him these days when I speak at conferences.

Nor will I forget how he took the time to ask me questions, and to listen carefully to my answers. It was an honor that he wanted to take the time to get to know me and to hear some of the stories of my life, my ideas, thoughts and perceptions. He had the ability to make you feel heard, valued and like you were the only person in the world. He regarded everyone as his equal and wanted to hear their stories.

So there's a silence now that he has departed. But it won't last long. Because more than anything, Elijah Harper empowered all of us to find and to use our authentic voices, to raise them up, to address wrongs and to celebrate right actions. His was a voice of conscience, a Canadian voice, a hero's voice. He will be missed but will be a part of every good thing we do forever.


Richard Wagamese
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Title Annotation:strictly speaking; Elijah Harper
Author:Wagamese, Richard
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Jun 1, 2013
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