A well-known Manitoba Cree elder passed away over the weekend at 111 years old. Sarah Harper died on Saturday night. The elder celebrated her 111th birthday in August in Bunibonibee Cree Nation also known as Oxford House where she spent most of her life. The community is about 570 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg.
“Sarah was born before signing the treaty for Oxford House,” said Bunibonibee Cree Nation Chief Tim Muskego.
“In 1909 we signed our treaty and she was born in 1906.”
Harper’s early life was difficult, Muskego said, because “the First Nations people were scattered all over our area.”
“It was not until way later that they started a settlement called Oxford House,” he said.
Throughout it all she was active, smiling and involved in the community, he said. Harper had six children and was a grandmother and great-grandmother.
“I remember until not long ago she was still hanging up the laundry on a clothesline and I know not too long ago it seemed like she was [pushing] the lawn mower, cleaning up the yard,” Muskego said.
Her hearing was failing, but Muskego said she still found a way to communicate with her family and share her wisdom.
“To her last days, she would talk to us and talk to us about the things of the past and respect and you know as an elder would talk to her grandkids,” he said.
“She called everyone grandkids.”
Harper was a lady full of compassion and was devoted to her family and community, said Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak Grand Chief Sheila North Wilson in a news release on Sunday.
“She was a gift to the generations of her family that were able to know her.… I will forever cherish the prayer she blessed me with and her guidance to always love and honour our family,” North Wilson said.
“The ripples from losing an elder with the knowledge collected over such a long life will be felt throughout the north.”
According to North Wilson, Harper may have been the oldest Indigenous person in Canada.
“For a time, she may have been known as the most elderly person in the province, but for many, many years longer, she was a pillar within Bunibonibee and Oxford House,” North Wilson said.
Muskego said the community is planning a celebration of Harper’s life.
“It’s sad. The community is sad, probably all of Manitoba,” he said.
“I didn’t really expect for that to be her last birthday at the time.”