Tuesday, May 12, 2015

H is for Elijah Harper

H is for Elijah Harper
The Manitoba Legislature,
where Elijah Harper made his stand against the Meech Lake Accords
(photo in public domain via Wikimedia Commons)
Having an unusually busy time at work this past six months has meant that I have had to temporarily lay down my blog posts, so I can think of no better way to begin my 2015 Quaker Alphabet Blog contributions than to serve up a reheated PowerPoint from my Roman history class this past winter. This PowerPoint made a brief reference to the Canadian political leader Elijah Harper (not a Quaker), who left this world much too soon in 2013.

Truth be told, when I drew up my outline for the second iteration of the alphabet, I had already planned to focus on Elijah Harper and, to a lesser extent, Stephen Harper, the current Prime Minister of Canada, who shares the same last name as Elijah Harper but is not, as far as I know, related to him. I had also planned to speak about the myths of the foundation of ancient Rome and how they relate to historical sources. However, the way I have connected Elijah Harper, foundation myths (the technical term for stories of the foundation of a society or group), and the role of a leader in society has evolved during this six-month hiatus from blogging. The connections I see with Quakerism have also evolved. I shall also lay most of my discussion of the policies of Stephen Harper and his government over to a later post; in the interim, I kindly request that any readers interested in Canadian Quakers and the government of Stephen Harper refrain from trying to ascertain what I might say.

All groups of people —nation-states, ethnic and cultural groups, religious organizations, even family groups— have what are called foundation myths. By “myths” scholars do not necessarily mean that the stories lack historical accuracy (they may or may not have a historical basis) but are taken as part of the commonly understood foundation for the way a society operates. A typical example for schoolchildren in the US is the story, probably apocryphal, of George Washington cutting down a cherry tree as a boy and immediately confessing the deed to his parents because he could not bear to tell a lie. Ancient Rome has several foundation myths, of which one is the story of the abandoned twins Romulus and Remus being suckled by the wolf, before the boys grew up and Romulus killed Remus. This story has a number of features shared by other myths, most notably an impregnation of out of wedlock and the miraculous survival of the offspring. In this case the story involves the impregnation of the boys’ mother, the Vestal Virgin Rhea Silvia, by Mars, the god of war. For scholars of Roman history, this myth tells us a great deal of how Romans —whether the early Romans in a small town or the later Romans in control of a great empire— viewed themselves. From the start to the finish, they were the offspring of the god of war, able to achieve domination by both miracles (the survival of the babies and the miraculous nature of twinship) and brute force (stifling cultural taboos to kill one’s own flesh and blood). From the very beginning, Roman religion, here represented by the Vestal Virgin, was part of the fabric of society, even if not always pure and not always given her due. In addition, as recognized by the Roman historiographer Livy, it makes the beginning “more dignified.”

I had lots of visual representations of Romulus and Remus and the wolf, as well as written versions of that story and of the other main Roman foundation myths as told by the Roman historiographer Livy (who was no fool as a historian) and other Roman writers, but I still wanted to consider more broadly why foundation myths were important. How could I relate the story of Romulus and Remus to foundation myths that my students might have encountered elsewhere? I could not count on my Canadian students knowing about George Washington and the cherry tree. Those who were history majors might well have known how the Magna Carta was bandied about in English legend and life, but to unpack that would have occupied too much class time, and I would rather leave that to specialists in British history. Instead, giving the verbal caveat that as an American I really should not be going into Canadian foundation myths, I went directly to a Canadian foundation myth that my students might understand very differently from the way their parents did at their age. If they understood the basic concept of what Canada is and represents differently from their parents, they probably have one man to thank: Elijah Harper.

The legal and administrative life of the federal government Canada is based on the equality of English and French (both the language and the culture). To some extent, this has always been the case since the establishment of the Canadian government in 1867;  visitors to Ottawa, the capital of Canada, note that the Houses of Parliament are of the same general architectural style as their British counterpart, but that the Supreme Court resembles a French chateau. (insert photos of both) However, the parity of the British and French as founding cultures was developed in its modern incarnation under the aegis of Pierre Elliott Trudeau, himself half French and half English, in the late 1960’s and 1970’s. This was partly a question of justice and partly a result of  the “quiet revolution” that modernized Quebec society and led to demands by Francophones in Quebec and elsewhere in Canada for equal services and recognition.

The equality of the French and English in Canada is a narrative that is meant to be both inspiring and practical (my husband and I are two of the many English-speaking parents in Canada to put a child into a bilingual French-English school program). Unfortunately, the foundation narrative as it was presented in this form is —to be blunt but polite— constructed on sand. Canada’s First Peoples, its indigenous Canadians, i.e., the real founding peoples of Canada, were either omitted from this account (in the late 1980’s it was not uncommon to hear talking heads on the radio speak of Canada’s “two founding cultures, French and English”) or mentioned in a footnote.

This issue is not only Canadian, of course. Foundation myths in North America and Australia tend to be problematical in their own rights (the “doctrine of discovery” in North America and the concept of terra nullius —no person’s land— in Australia are especially shameful views of history), but almost any society comprised of a variety of ethnic groups or arising from conquest of another people will have complex accounts of how they came to be as they are.

In terms of Canada, the 1982 Constitution Act is one of the many aspects of Canadian public life based on the parity of the French and English contributions. Because the Parti Quebeçois held the reins of power when the Canadian constitution was patriated, the Quebec government has never signed the constitution, although Quebec and Quebeckers have always been bound by its provisions.

In 1987, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and the ten provincial premiers negotiated the Meech Lake Accord, a package of constitutional amendments designed to encourage the Quebec government to sign the constitution.  A companion accord was negotiated in June of 1990. The two packages required ratification by the legislatures of all ten provinces by June 23, 1990.

The accords were introduced in the Manitoba legislature with twelve days to spare. In order for all of the work to be completed in time, the initial procedural vote needed unanimity. Elijah Harper, an NDP MLA representing Rupertsland and a member of the Red Sucker Lake First Nation, refused to provide that unanimity on the grounds that the Native Peoples of Canada had not been part of the negotiations on the Accords. Every day Elijah Harper took his seat in the legislature, silently raising an eagle feather to show his filibuster. Ultimately, the idea of Canada as French and English, and not native as well, was as dead as the Meech Lake Accords.

In sum, foundation myths, such as were understood by both Romans ca. 500 BCE and Canadians in 1990 CE, give us vital information about the contemporary power structure or ideology in a given community. These stories are transmitted in a way at least partially independent of historical and archaeological evidence. The fact that my students of 2015, most of whom were not born in 1990 and who are the beneficiaries of a vastly improved high school curriculum, undoubtedly have a different foundation account of Canada, is evidence not only of changes in Canadian society but one small indication that Elijah Harper’s lone and courageous stand was not made in vain.

But let’s get back to Elijah Harper and the circumstances around his position. Perhaps the most common objection to his stand in 1990 was that, if the Quebec government did not sign the constitution, for which the Meech Lake Accords were considered a necessary precondition, Quebec voters would be more likely to approve a separatist referendum. Was not Elijah Harper concerned about this risk, given the large number of Indigenous peoples in Quebec and their vested interest in keeping Quebec and Canada together? (See here for an excerpt from the book The Morning After, by Chantal Hébert with Jean-Charles Lapierre, which discusses the lack of foresight on the part of federalists and separatists alike about this very problem in the Quebec referendum of 1995.)

My understanding is that for Elijah Harper, his filibuster over the Meech Lake Accords was a question of means and ends. The just goal of a better Canada could not be achieved through the means of the Meech Lake Accords as they were written. Quakers have had similar concerns about means and ends since the foundation of our Religious Society. We see this early on, in William Penn’s Some Fruits of Solitude and Maxims (1682): “A good end cannot purify evil means; nor must we ever do evil, so that good may come of it (#537).” These same ethical considerations are at the base of our peace testimony.

Looking at both the goal of a more just society (whether in Canada or elsewhere) and the means of achieving it also entails looking at the political process. The political process is necessarily somewhat messy and imperfect; it also, by necessity, depends upon the separation of church and state. In what ways can societies with a significant indigenous population be better societies for their indigenous inhabitants?

Here there are both problems and opportunities for Canada. The opportunity is the chance for a renewed Canada, ultimately stemming from proposals to both government and civil society organizations by indigenous leaders. Canadian Yearly Meeting and the Canadian Friends Service Committee, as I will outline more fully in a later post, are among of a number of Quaker organizations worldwide with long-standing concerns about Native affairs; its shortcoming is a dearth of indigenous members, but it is nevertheless poised to be part of the solution. (See here for a link to the CFSC website outlining Native initiatives.) There are, indeed, significant numbers of individuals and organizations outside of Native communities who feel likewise.

The most significant problem is that the federal government has, at least of this writing (mid-May of 2015), failed to promulgate and promote suitable policy initiatives and to make sufficient funds available. Please forgive me if I am wrong, but that is how the issue appears to me, a taxpayer who would pay more taxes if that is what the circumstances entail. The needs are extensive. One of the most obvious and immediate  is a commission of inquiry into the disproportionate number of murders of Indigenous Canadians, especially women. The current government has stated that such a commission is not needed. This position would be more reasonable if there had been an official inquiry in recent years, or even if all the necessary information was readily available, if all parties to the discussion had had the opportunity to make what they had to offer known, and if best practices were being followed. It is true that the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) has recently made its database available, for which I thank them, and the average non-native taxpayer has access to an increasing body of research. However, a commission of inquiry has the resources and the legal mandate to call witnesses (especially the families of the deceased), gather all of the evidence in one place, and make specific recommendations.

I am one of many asking the current prime minister, Stephen Harper, to reconsider his refusal to allow such a commission to be convened. In doing so, I would like to reflect for a minute on that twist of fate by which Stephen Harper and Elijah Harper coincidentally share a last name. I would ask Stephen Harper how he would respond if the connection was more than coincidence: if Elijah Harper, and by extension the other members of Canada’s First Peoples, were his immediate family. The idea, I should add, is not mine, but rather that of the Shawnee leader Tecumseh: “Brothers, we all belong to one family; we are all children of the Great Spirit; we walk in the same path; slake our thirst at the same spring...” (“Tecumseh's Speech to the Osages in the winter of 1811-12,” recorded by John Dunn Hunter, Memoirs of a Captivity among the Indians of North America [1823]).

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