The Courage that Changed Nations

Courage changes lives. We are surrounded by a million acts of personal courage but nearly all are unseen and unsung. There is the courage of the shy boy raising his hand in the classroom and the timid girl clenching her jaw and walking on to the playground when, for many girls, it is a battlefield. There is the courage of the single Mom somehow managing another morning of scurrying kids to school and herself to work while wondering if there will be more month than money. Courage is not the absence of fear but the presence of determination. Courage is the world’s greatest agent of change.

Courage changes also nations.

In 1990, secret meetings between Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and provincial and territorial leaders led to the Meech Lake Accord. The short document detailed a series of constitutional changes that shifted significant power from the federal government. It was designed to seduce Quebec into doing what it had refused to do nine years before and sign Canada’s new Constitution with its embedded Charter of Rights and Freedoms. One by one, provincial and territorial governments ratified the Meech Lake deal before its looming June 23 deadline. No one expected what happened next.

The speaker of Manitoba’s legislature asked for unanimous consent to waive a two-day waiting period and immediately begin the ratification debate. Alone among his colleagues, with an eagle feather in hand, Elijah Harper said no. Harper was an Ojibwa-Cree and former Chief of the Red Sucker Lake Community. His bold action in the House that day reflected the anger of many Aboriginal people who were upset that they had been left out of the process that created the Meech Lake Accord and that its constitutional changes ignored their concerns. Their historic concerns and pleas for respect had not been dismissed by those who designed the constitutional accord. Worse. Their concerns and pleas had not even crossed their minds. Harper’s no paralyzed the legislature. It stunned the country.

The legitimate concerns of Aboriginal nations had not been dismissed by those who designed the constitutional accord. Worse. The concerns had not even crossed their minds. Then Harper’s no paralyzed the legislature. It stunned the country.

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(Photo: Rabble.ca)

The next day, the speaker again asked for unanimous consent. Again, Mr. Harper said no. Eight times he said no until the clock ran out. The debate never happened. Newfoundland’s premier then refused to bring his legislature to a vote. Meech Lake was dead.

Prime Minister Mulroney was enraged, thought Harper was stupid, but understood the magnitude of what had just changed. He set to work constructing a new series of constitutional amendments that would become the Charlottetown Accord. This time, though, Mulroney sought a broader consensus. He ensured that Aboriginal people were part of the consultation and decision-making process.

Native nations spoke with many voices and all were heard. The Assembly of First Nations, Inuit Tapirisat of Canada, the Native Council of Canada, and the Métis National Council all participated in consultations and helped shape the final document.

The accord presented to the Canadian people in a 2009 referendum stated that, after a three-year waiting period, Aboriginal peoples would be granted self-government. Treaty rights would be entrenched in the Constitution. This time, however, for reasons that had little to do with Native participation or promises made, it was the Canadian peoples’ turn to say no.  The Charlottetown Accord was tossed on history’s scrap heap atop Meech Lake.

But a change had happened. Harper’s lesson was learned. The Charlottetown consultations had brought Aboriginal issues to the forefront of Canada’s civic conversation. Afterward, a Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples allowed a national airing of history’s insults, crimes, and atrocities. It led to a federal law that met Charlottetown’s promise: the recognition of the inherent right of Aboriginal self-government and a constitutional recognition of treaty rights. Parliament issued an apology for the unforgivable horrors of the government and church-run residential schools.

Aboriginal nations were now in the halls of power with more of their concerns recognized and better understood. But where laws and hearts must walk in tandem, change is slow. Many infuriatingly complex problems still face Aboriginal peoples and shape their place within Canada. Problems three hundred years in the making are not being quickly solved. But they are no longer ignored, and, despite occasional setbacks, there is steady, often begrudging, but determined progress.

A year after his brave stand in the Manitoba legislature, Elijah Harper received the prestigious Stanley Knowles Humanitarian Award. It was the same award given by the Canadian parliament to Nelson Mandela for the courage he showed in helping to end South Africa’s apartheid. Harper accepted the award with the same quiet, humility with which he had sat with his eagle feather and said no. Courage, after all, is neither brash nor boastful. Courage acknowledges doubt and fear but refuses to be cowed by them. It is the humility of the shy boy, timid girl, and single Mom who summon quiet courage to change and shape their lives. It is the courage of Mr. Harper who changed the Canadian nation and Aboriginal nations by placing them on the road to where they should always have been.

Redemption’s road is long and rocky but we must all summon the courage to travel it and to do so together. Let the drinking water be cleaned, let the children be educated, let the murdered and missing women be investigated, recognized, and mourned, let the treaties be obeyed, the land respected, and respect ensured. As the courageous Mr. Harper knew, it’s been too long, but it’s not too late.

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