WINNIPEG - Anishinaabe elders and community leaders adopted Archbishop James Weisgerber of Winnipeg as their brother April 14 in a traditional ceremony at Thunderbird House in Winnipeg, the first event of its kind in the reconciliation between Indian residential school survivors and missionary churches.

"This is part of a long journey for me," Weisgerber said.

As a priest in Saskatchewan, he had been a pastoral minister at four of what were then called Indian reserves, "but nobody ever talked about the residential schools," he said. In 1990, Phil Fontaine, former National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, "made a public declaration and released a huge barrage, and more people began speaking and I began to understand," Weisgerber said.

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TORONTO - In his Grade 9 art class at Fr. John Redmond Catholic Secondary School in west end Toronto, Roman Makuch is drawing beavers, turtles and geese, trying to see through aboriginal eyes and express himself with First Nations’ symbols. The semester dedicated to studying aboriginal art is not easy, Makuch tells a visitor. But he believes it’s valuable.

“We’re all Canadian,” he said. “We’re all proud of being Canadian and part of our past is aboriginal.”

Grade 12 student Radiyah Chowthury spent last year reading aboriginal authors in her Grade 11 University Enriched Natives Studies English class at Blessed Mother Teresa Catholic Secondary School in Toronto’s Malvern community. She can’t imagine not studying aboriginal authors. As an immigrant kid, she’s unwilling to settle for a history of Canada that begins and ends with European sailors bumping into a big, cold land mass on their way to India.

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OTTAWA - Shannen Koostachin had a dream for “safe and comfy” culturally sensitive schools for First Nations children like herself.

On Feb. 27, a vote in the House of Commons brought that dream closer to reality.

The House of Commons voted unanimously to “adopt Shannen’s Dream” by declaring First Nations children’s “equal right to high-quality, culturally relevant education” and to provide the necessary policy changes, consultation and funding support to make a First Nations’ education system “at a minimum” equal in quality to provincial systems.

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TORONTO - There is the poverty, the high cost of food, lack of clean water and acceptable housing, the lack of concern for the people’s wellbeing, the high rate of disease and of course the whole situation around the school. Nobody has the silver bullet that will fix education in Attiwapiskat in northern Ontario.

But that doesn’t mean we do nothing. Mother Teresa most often gets credit for telling us that we’re not called to be successful. We’re called to be faithful.

As a Toronto Catholic District School Board teacher, I’ve been working with Attawapiskat for 10 years. It started when I was a literacy resource teacher heading up our early reading intervention program. The principal of Attiwapiskat’s JR Nakogee School contacted me. The challenge at his school was and still is raising the literacy skills.

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Churches need to define how they're going to help repair the damage residential schools did to aboriginal culture in Canada and the federal government must cough up the millions of documents that future historians will need to tell the story of Canada's effort to assimilate First Nations' people, says the interim report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.

The report marks the halfway point of the five-year mandate of the commission. It warns that government reluctance to provide full and meaningful access to Library and Archives Canada records threatens the mandate of the commission. The TRC intends to go to court to force greater government co-operation.

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SYRACUSE, N.Y. - Since first learning in December that Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha was to be canonized, the head of a committee named for her in the Syracuse Diocese said those who have a devotion to the saint to be "are walking on air."

"I can't tell you how excited we are," said Emily Garrow-Stewart, a Mohawk who grew up hearing Blessed Kateri's story in her home.

"She has been a part of my life since I was a child," she said. "There was always a picture of her in the house. She is such a good role model and example. In my mind, there is always such a light about her."

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TORONTO - A half-dozen aboriginal youth headed for Geneva have shameful things to say about Canada and how it treats First Nations children. But their testimony before the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child will be given in the hope that Canada can do better, the young delegates told media in Toronto Feb. 2.

"There's been talk for years and years and years. If there's just going to be more talk, I wouldn't consider that a success," said 24-year-old John-Paul Chalykoff from the Michipicoten First Nation on the north shore of Lake Superior.

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OTTAWA - The historic Crown-First Nations Gathering revealed stark differences on how the relationship between Canada’s founding peoples and the government, embodied in the Indian Act, should continue.

And whatever is resolved, an advisor to the Catholic Church said, must re-affirm historic treaties signed between the two.

It is about recognizing the sacred importance of covenants, said Gerry Kelly at the one-day gathering held in Ottawa Jan. 24. Kelly is the former director of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops’ secretariat on aboriginal affairs and now advises Catholic entities regarding the Indian Residential Schools legacy.

“Our whole understanding of our relationship with God is understood scripturally in terms of covenants,” said Kelly. “We understand what it means. A covenant is sacred. We can’t hold that position and not recognize the covenant relationship established by treaties. It is timeless and it is binding.”

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo called the Indian Act “a breach” of the government’s commitment to First Nations peoples that was “built on a disgraceful premise of our inferiority.”

“It is well past time that we began to undo the damage that Act has inflicted on our peoples, and to our partnership,” Atleo said, noting it formed the basis for the reserve system, residential schools and prohibitions of spiritual and cultural practices.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, however, promised an incremental approach to remedying some problems inherent in the Act, but bluntly stated his government had “no grand scheme to repeal or to unilaterally re-write the Indian Act.”

“After 136 years, that tree has deep roots. Blowing up the stump would just leave a big hole,” Harper told the more than 150 First Nations leaders at the gathering. “However, there are ways, creative ways, collaborative ways, ways that involve consultation between our government, the provinces and First Nations leadership and communities, ways that provide options within the Act, or outside of it, for practical, incremental and real change.”

The gathering was called to find ways to improve the relationship between Canada’s First Nations’ people and the federal government. It had been planned for some time, with the date finalized during the period in late 2011 when images of the poverty on Canada’s reserves were brought to the forefront with the poor housing conditions that plagued Attawapiskat in Northern Ontario.

Kelly said incremental approaches are not problematic in themselves.

“So much of this depends on good intentions and fairness,” he said. The challenge in the past has been with First Nations and bands being pressured “to give up their full rights for a limited parcel of rights.”

The other problems with an incremental approach are strictly practical, he said.  

“The longer this process takes, the more resources are taken from First Nations lands in the context where their rights to resources and benefiting from those resources are ignored.”

Aboriginal entrepreneur and consultant David Acco, a Catholic and Montreal-based member of the Cree First Nation, said the gathering could not have taken place in the 1960s or ’70s with the kind of aboriginal inclusiveness of today. Aboriginal people have developed the leadership abilities and legal skills to put them in a better position to negotiate, he said.

Acco, president of Acosys Consulting, said a long-term vision is needed that takes into consideration how current negotiations will affect future generations.

“I don’t think aboriginal people are going to get another opportunity to right the wrongs of the past like we have now in another 100 years,” Acco said.

He also raised concerns about incremental approaches creating a hierarchy of “haves” and “have-nots” that will see some First Nations rewarded and others, like Attawapiskat, left behind. Communities like Attawapiskat need the Indian Act for their survival, Acco said, because of the fiduciary responsibility the Crown has to First Nations. An incremental approach decentralizes and potentially fragments any unity among First Nations, he said.

The gathering’s “outcome statement” affirmed principles in the Joint Action Plan the government and First Nations developed in June 2011 that included improving relationships and partnerships “respectful of aboriginal and treaty rights,” transparent and accountable governance, empowering success through education and opportunity, promoting self-sufficient communities and assisting economic development that will benefit all Canadians.

The statement called for immediate action on a renewed relationship that includes multi-year funding, improved financial accountability on the part of all with the goal of First Nations financial self-sufficiency. It affirmed an incremental approach to “removing barriers to First Nations governance,” by working around and through existing mechanisms in the Indian Act, which cannot be replaced overnight,”and committed both parties to “respect and honour our treaty relationship and advance approaches to find common ground on treaty implementation.”

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OTTAWA - Winnipeg Archbishop James Weisgerber believes that “rebalancing the relationship” between First Nations peoples and the government may be the most important issue in Canada today.

To that end, he hopes the Jan. 24 summit in Ottawa between First Nations leaders and the federal government will finally address what he calls the “tremendous inequalities and great suffering” of Canada’s aboriginal peoples.

“The federal government has a lead role,” Weisgerber said. “We arrived (and) we made treaties that are supposed to be the basis on which we share coming together.”

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OTTAWA - The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) has launched a new webpage that traces the relationship of the Catholic Church in Canada and its First Nations’ peoples.

The site sketches the history of relations with indigenous peoples, many of whom became part of the Church and “gave much to it.” It cites Joseph Chiwatenhwa, Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha and “Grand Chief Henri Membertou, who became the first aboriginal leader to be baptized by the French, as a sign of alliance and good faith in 1610.”

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Decades of failed policies and broken treaties have created an appalling level of social and economic misery that affect every layer of aboriginal life. So the first thing needed to fix the problem is a decision about where to start.

To that end, First Nations leaders will meet with Prime Minister Stephen Harper and key government members on Jan. 24 in an Ottawa summit to address what Archbishop James Weisgerber of Winnipeg ranks as the most important issue facing Canadian society today —  forging a new relationship between the First Nations, Metis and Inuit people and the rest of Canada.

Published in Editorial

When Canada’s first aboriginal saint is canonized, it will be an answered prayer for native people across Canada and beyond.

“There’s a natural sense of pride and joy,” among native people said Whitehorse Bishop Gary Gordon.

On hearing the news that Pope Benedict XVI had cleared the way for Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha to be canonized, perhaps as early as spring 2012, Gordon planned to phone his old friend Steve Point, the Lieutenant Governor of British Columbia. Point is a former elected chief of the Skowkale First Nation.

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TORONTO - Shocking, shameful poverty among Canada’s native people goes far beyond the remote Northern Ontario community of Attiwapiskat. Native poverty is walking the streets and crowding the basement apartments of Canada’s largest cities, according to a new report by St. Michael’s Hospital researcher Dr. Janet Smylie.

Smylie gathered detailed health information from 790 aboriginal Canadians living in Hamilton, Ont., and discovered the greatest, most prevalent risk to their health is poverty. Almost 80 per cent of respondents to Smylie’s survey reported an annual income of less than $20,000 per year.

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OTTAWA - Senator Gerry St. Germain knows first-hand the role a good education can play in lifting people out of poverty and despair.

“I grew up in a Métis community where there wasn’t much hope, and there wasn’t a very strong light at the end of the tunnel,” St. Germain said in an interview.

The senator had an aunt who “sort of grabbed me out and helped our family educate me.”

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MOOSE FACTORY, ONT. - Poverty. No clean water supply. No electricity. No heating. Lack of proper housing. Lack of education. Minimal health resources. Suffering. Hopelessness. Loud cries for help. And yet no one is listening. No one is paying attention. No one is showing care and compassion.

This may sound like a Third World, developing country, but, no, this is Canada. This is the Canada that so many people do not know exists and is ignored. Until recently, I was one of these people.

I am a registered nurse who has served in impoverished villages in Nigeria and the shantytowns surrounding the cities of Lima, Peru, and Guayaquil, Ecuador. I have experienced much poverty in my travels, but I have also experienced hope, courage and love. Although these people may seem to lack the basics, they have so much more. It is a poverty of material, not of spirit.

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