Vernon Harper’s mother came to Toronto in the 1930s from the Mistawasis First Nation in Saskatchewan. His father was of Irish and Cree heritage. According to Harper, his father left the family early on, leaving his mother with four children.
Poor in health, Harper’s mother died when he was around four years old, forcing him and his brothers into foster care. The siblings were placed in a White Protestant foster home, where he and his brothers were isolated from their culture and their mother tongue, the Cree language. During this time, Harper only attended school for a short period.
When Harper was 15, he hitchhiked from Toronto to the Mistawasis reserve to find his mother’s relatives. While in Saskatchewan, he began to learn about Cree spiritual traditions and ceremonies. This experience led to his later interest in preserving Indigenous languages and oral histories.
In the early 1950s, Harper enlisted in the US army and served in the Korean War. After suffering an injury, he returned to Saskatchewan in 1953.
Harper began a career as a light heavyweight professional boxer after returning to Toronto. (See also Boxing.) Known as Hurricane Harper, he lost only 7 matches out of 61.
Harper was attracted to radical politics and became a leader of the American Indian Movement in Toronto. Having struggled with substance abuse for years, Harper became sober in 1972, seeking to elevate his life and the lives of other Indigenous people in Canada through his activism and community work. That same year, Harper began serving as vice-president of the Ontario Métis and Non-Status Indian Association, a post he held for two years. (See also Métis and Indian.)
In 1974, with his then-wife Pauline Shirt, he organized the Native People’s Caravan, a cross-country journey that began in Vancouver and ended in Ottawa, where a long-term encampment ensued and continued into 1975. The caravan brought various Indigenous groups together that sought to raise awareness about grievances against the federal government, including broken treaties. Harper’s account of the experience, Following the Red Path: The Native People’s Caravan, 1974, was published in1979. (See also Indigenous Political Organization and Activism in Canada.)
Harper’s community service tended to focus on urban areas, and he became known as the “urban elder.” Urban Elder was also the title of a 1997 film that documented his life and work in various areas including education, spiritual guidance and health care.
In 1976, Harper and his then-wife Pauline founded the Wandering Spirit Survival School in Toronto. Now known as the First Nations School of Toronto, its objective is still to empower Indigenous youth with knowledge about their culture, traditions and languages. For a period, Harper also served as an elder-in-council for the Toronto District School Board’s Aboriginal Education Centre. (See also Education of Indigenous Peoples in Canada.)
A medicine man and respected elder, Harper offered spiritual services to Indigenous peoples of various walks of life. In 2007, when artist Norval Morrisseau died, Harper led the traditional offerings, blessings and storytelling at the funeral. Harper also created a sweat lodge in Guelph for Indigenous families, where he acted as keeper of the lodge. (See also Religion and Spirituality of Indigenous Peoples in Canada.)
Harper was also one of the first elders to have chaplain status as recognized by the Correctional Service of Canada. In jails, Harper provided spiritual services, sweat lodge ceremonies and traditional counselling to Indigenous and non-Indigenous inmates. Harper also counselled Indigenous youth offenders, acting as a youth court worker with the Aboriginal Legal Services in Toronto. He was deeply concerned with the rehabilitation of Indigenous men and women, seeking to keep Indigenous youth out of prison.
DID YOU KNOW?
Lakota elder Henry Crow Dog, a leader of the American Indian Movement in the late 1960s, and his son Chief Leonard Crow Dog, bestowed upon Harper the holy title of Heyoka — a person who brings the power of humour and of opposites into challenging situations in order to bring about healing and restoration. Harper is said to be the first non-Lakota person to be given this honour.
Harper was a resident elder at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) in Toronto. He advocated for the creation of a sweat lodge, a proposal that was fulfilled on CAMH’s ceremonial grounds for Aboriginal services. Harper was an early advocate for the incorporation of Indigenous spiritual practices into standard Western medicine treatments of addiction and mental health.
Death and Legacy
Harper died on 12 May 2018 in Toronto. An announcement of his death was released by the Anishinabek Nation Grand Council, a sign of respect for the Cree elder. Grand Council Chief Patrick Madahbee remarked that Harper would be remembered for his passion for helping others and for being a champion of Indigenous rights.