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Profile : Elijah Harper Stands Out as a Chief Among Canada's Indians : He has become an unlikely political hero by saying no to Mulroney on the Meech Lake Accord. By doing so, he showed his people they could be effective players in the political establishment.

September 04, 1990|MARY WILLIAMS WALSH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WINNIPEG, Canada — This has been a summer of tension between Indians and whites in Canada, but you'd never know it to see the man who started it all.

Elijah Harper is sitting in a hotel lobby bar in downtown Winnipeg, hunched over a cup of coffee and unwittingly attracting Anglo admirers the way a porch light draws moths on a summer evening.

"Hey, how'd the debate go last night?" asks a stranger in coat and tie, approaching Harper's table and hoping to engage Canada's most celebrated Indian in a political conversation.

"Very good move on Meech Lake," gushes a blowzy blonde, passing on her way to the lambada club downstairs. She referred to an unpopular government initiative that Harper successfully opposed in June, winning in the process the hearts of countless white Canadians but even more importantly, awakening in Canada's more than 350,000 Indians a sense of pride and determination to make their mark on the country's political system.

"The people of Canada have finally noticed us," said Phil Fontaine, an Ojibwa chief from Manitoba and a prominent native rights activist. "We have our hero, and that's Elijah."

Harper makes an unlikely political hero. He lacks the striking physical assets of, say, a Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan, or the I'm-right-and-the-hell-with-the-world hauteur of Britain's Margaret Thatcher. He is heavyset, stooped and wears his hair in a long black ponytail. And when he speaks, his voice can barely be heard above the strains of the cocktail lounge piano.

He appears genuinely uncomfortable at all the attention he's getting from both white and native Canadians. "Sometimes it's overwhelming," Harper said, sugaring his coffee and turning his head slightly toward the wall, the better to avoid the meaningful glances in his direction from all around the room. "I don't always know how to react."

Harper's reputation, however, was sealed last June, when he played the pivotal role in facing down the Canadian federal government.

At the time, the government was trying to amend the national constitution in ways designed to appease disgruntled French-speakers in Quebec. The package of amendments, called the Meech Lake Accord, deeply offended native Canadians, however, because it gave legal status to the concept that Canada was founded jointly by the English and the French. Native peoples were forgotten.

For all the controversy it engendered, the Meech Lake Accord appeared to be a fait accompli until Harper, the lone Indian in Manitoba's provincial assembly, took to the floor of the legislature, used procedural tricks to block the amendments which needed unanimous approval by Canada's 10 provinces, and demonstrated to an astonished nation what one man can do.

His stand made Harper an instant national hero--the subject of folk songs. Manitobans sport "Elijah Harper for Prime Minister" buttons, and one Winnipeg couple has named their baby after him. Even hard-boiled Canadian journalists have been seen to weep when they interview the quiet but determined Harper.

But more important than the splash Harper made in the white political world was the impetus he gave native Canadians in the two weeks that it took him to kill the Meech Lake Accord. When he stood up and said "No" to the prime minister, Harper showed Indians for the first time that they could be effective players on the Establishment's political stage. Since then, from one end of Canada to the other, Indians have jumped to follow Harper's example.

"To native people, the two weeks in June, 1990, were a turning point in their history," said Pauline Comeau, a Manitoba journalist and author of a forthcoming book on native affairs. Harper's stand was followed this summer by a wave of native civil disobedience which swept much of this vast country. Consider:

* Heavily armed Mohawk Indians near Montreal blocked a major commuter bridge over the St. Lawrence River for seven weeks, calling attention to native claims on an old-growth forest that was due to be levelled for a golf course. The blockade disrupted the daily travels of tens of thousands of commuters in Canada's second-largest city, and the Canadian army had to be called in before the barricades finally began to come down. Prime Minister Brian Mulroney has promised protesting Mohawks that the would-be golf course land will be theirs.

* In the logging region around Val D'Or, Quebec, Algonquin Indians have blocked a highway heavily used by timber interests to press the provincial government for better conservation measures.

* In Ontario, various bands of the Ojibwa nation piled ties, logs, and even an old refrigerator and a rusty bathtub atop key rail lines north of Lake Superior to protest slum conditions on their reserves. The rail blockades stranded passengers, backed up hundreds of freight cars, and led to the layoffs of more than a hundred rail yard workers.

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