Harper died early Friday in Ottawa as a result of cardiac failure due to diabetes complications, according to a statement released by his family.
Harper achieved national fame in 1990 by holding an eagle feather as he stood in the Manitoba legislature and refused to support the Meech Lake accord, effectively blocking the constitutional amendment package negotiated to gain Quebec's acceptance of the Constitution Act of 1982.
Harper protested that the proposed accord was negotiated in 1987 without the input of Canada's aboriginal peoples.
The accord required ratification by all 10 provincial legislatures and Parliament, and Harper's action prevented Manitoba from doing so before the deadline.
Newfoundland followed by cancelling its free vote in the legislature.
Family says Harper 'a true leader and visionary'
His wife, Anita Olsen Harper, his children and the family said in the statement that Harper "was a wonderful man, father, partner. He was a true leader and visionary in every sense of the word."
The statement added: "He will have a place in Canadian history, forever, for his devotion to public service and uniting his fellow First Nations with pride, determination and resolve. Elijah will also be remembered for bringing aboriginal and non-aboriginal people together to find a spiritual basis for healing and understanding. We will miss him terribly and love him forever.”
Bernard Valcourt, the federal minister of aboriginal affairs and northern development, described Harper as "a dedicated First Nations leader and advocate."
"On behalf of the government of Canada, I would like to extend my sincere condolences to the family, friends and colleagues of Elijah Harper," Valcourt said in a short statement late Friday.
Born on the Red Sucker Lake First Nation, about 710 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg, Harper attended residential schools in Norway House, Brandon and Birtle, and then secondary schools at Garden Hill and Winnipeg.
He studied at the University of Manitoba and began his long career in public service when he was elected chief of his community at the young age of 29.
In 1981, Harper was elected as an NDP member of the Manitoba legislative assembly for Rupertsland, an office he held for 11 years. He was the first person elected from a First Nation to serve as an MLA.
In 1993, Harper was elected for one term as a Liberal member of Parliament for the Churchill riding. In January 1998, he served a term as commissioner for the Indian Claims Commission.
He was also bestowed with the title of honorary chief for life by the Red Sucker Lake First Nation.
Brought aboriginal issues to forefront
Gary Filmon, who was premier of Manitoba at the time of the Meech Lake vote, recalled Harper telling him in advance that he had decided to block the accord.
"I felt his sincerity and I believed that he was doing what he felt he had to do and that he was not representing just himself — he was representing First Nations and aboriginal people from coast to coast," Filmon told CBC News.
"He certainly has left an impact on our province and our country. [There's] no question that his position on Meech Lake brought First Nation and aboriginal issues into the forefront."
On a personal note, Filmon remembered Harper for his great sense of humour.
"He often had a new joke to tell in his own shy way. He'd get up and have the room roaring. So he was a very likable person," he said.
Grand Chief David Harper of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, an organization that represents northern Manitoba First Nations, applauded Harper's stand on Meech Lake and his efforts to ensure aboriginal voices were heard in Ottawa.
"First Nations has to be up front and centre in the political landscape of this land. That's where he was and, for sure, he's going to be missed," he said.
The 'screech on Meech'
Perry Bellegarde, chief of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations, called Harper’s death "a big loss for our people. He was one of our strong leaders across Canada and he'll be sadly missed."
"We always say he put the screech on the Meech. He halted the Meech Lake accord because First Nations governments were left out, you know?" Bellegarde said.
Jennifer Wood, who worked with Harper for 10 years, remembered him as someone who "wasn't afraid to challenge anyone or anyone."
"There's not one person that I know that will ever be equal to Elijah," she said.
"We should never be afraid to challenge anything."
Kyra Wilson, co-president of the University of Manitoba's Aboriginal Students Association, described Harper as the original activist, and he said the Idle No More movement would not have been possible without him.
"He started it all," she said. "Now we're seeing a lot of people coming forward and opposing some of the decisions that some of our governments are trying to impose."Suggest a correction