Elijah Harper

by maxmosher

When you’re into history you get accostomed to glazed eyes. People tend to think history is the memorization of battles and dates and obsessing about people long dead: past stuff that no longer matters. My interest in history couldn’t be farther from this. I’m into history because it explains the present. Therefore it overlaps with my interest in politics and social issues. Even ancient history can be relevant. For instance, the last couple days I’ve become obsessed with theorizing on why ancient people moved around so much, spreading to almost every inhabitable corner of the globe. They now think people originated in Africa and spread out from there. But why did they travel? And (this is what gets me) why did some early human groups keep moving (for instance, people moving down North and South America from the bering straight) while others stayed put (the ancestors of the Inuit settling in Alaska and the Canadian territories)? Maybe the adventurous spirit which inspires us to seek the unknown was already present in people, although the answer is probably far less romantic.

I am convinced that it is how history is taught, rather than history itself, which bores people. While we mock the Americans for reducing their history to a couple bit-sized keywords (tea party, 1776, Betsy Ross, slavery) at least it’s not portrayed as boring like ‘Pease, Order and Good Government’ Canada. I had no idea before first year university that essentially an act of terrorism gave birth to the province of Manitoba. Now that is criminal! And I remember getting so frustrated by the way we were taught about Quebec: it all focused on the Catholic Church and what New France was supposed to be like. What about what New France was actually like? As a scholar of sexuality and gender, I guess I’m inclined towards the underdogs and outcasts and the things that went on even if they weren’t talked about.

Speaking of Manitoba, I was horizontal on the couch last night and I could have gone upstairs and picked a DVD, but instead we flipped channels. We settled on a Canadian TV movie about Elijah Harper, the Cree band chief and NDP (then Liberal) politician who threw a wrench into the Meech Lake Accord. Brian Mulroney had stacked his political career on passing the Accord, which was meant to ease Quebec’s acceptance of the Constitution Act. Every province except Newfoundland had passed it, but due to a parliamentary quirk the Manitoba assembly had to ratify it unanimously. Annoyed that there had been almost no input of the First Nations on the Accord and disillusioned over his difficulty at getting attention for Aboriginal issues, Harper voted against Meech Lake and prevented its ratification. Soon after, the premier of Newfoundland cancelled their vote and the Accord died.

The film was exactly the kind of thing Canadian channels should be producing. The direction was focused and interesting, the politics layered and fair. Although there were heart-wrenching dramatic scenes, particularly those of alcoholism and abandoned children on reserves, the dry ironic ‘Indian’ sense of humour (familiar to fans of Thomas King’s writing) was recurring theme.

For instance, after preventing the ratification of the Accord, the phones at Harper’s headquarters are ringing off the hook as his mostly-Native entourage celebrate. “Hey Elijah,” one of them tells him. “Some of the people calling are white folks!” Harper (played by Bill Merasty) says with perfect deadpan, “That’s fine. White people have rights too.” It was a bittersweet victory, though, as the defeat of Meech Lake did nothing to improve conditions for Native peoples.

I felt glad that I had learned this story (although frustrated that I only learned it now), proud that Canada had produced a watchable TV movie about our political history, and inspired by an example of how, occasionally, no matter what side you agree with, one person can make a difference.

And even though the film was not new, I wish the Toronto Star TV Guide had considered putting Merasty on the cover rather than Kate Gosselin.

Postscript: Okay, so I was looking for clips of this movie and clicked on a youtube clip redundantly titled ‘Native American Indian Beauty and Hot First Nation Men’ .(I had to, right?) It’s this slideshow of hot men with long hair, some of who I am sure are not ‘Native American Indian First Nation’ and some who look like the covers of romance novels. Especially problematic are the comments; “I am in love with them–Beautiful people, sad history” ; “I have a fetish for their hair”; “I got a lot of them on myspace, THEY ARE SO NICE”; and finally, “They look Mexican. WTF?”

But this could be another post entirely.