Archbishop James Weisgerber of Winnipeg CNS photo/G regory A. Shemitz, Long Island Catholic

Anishinaabe elders adopt Archbishop Weisgerber

By  James Buchok, Canadian Catholic News
  • April 17, 2012

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.

During the ceremony Fontaine, widely regarded for bringing about the Indian Residential School Agreement in 2005 and the formal apology of the Government of Canada in 2008, offered his own apology to the Catholic Church.

"My bitterness and anger hurt many good people dedicated to our well being and I only focused on the people who hurt us," Fontaine said. "I tarred everyone with the same brush and I was wrong. As you apologized to me on more than one occasion, I apologize to you."

Fontaine was one of four leaders to adopt the archbishop. The others were Tobasonakwut Kinew, an Anishinaabe elder, pipecarrier and a member of the Mideiwin, an aboriginal medicine society; Fred Kelly, an Anishinabe elder and a member of the Mideiwin, and a member of the team that negotiated the Indian Residential School Agreement; and Bert Fontaine, brother of Phil and a leader in the Sagkeeng First Nation. All are residential school survivors.

From 1820 to the 1970s, the Canadian government forcibly removed aboriginal children from their homes and placed them in residential schools. The 139 schools were run by churches including the Roman Catholic, Anglican and United Church. Aside from being separated from their homes, many of the children suffered abuse at the hands of those who operated the schools.

In 2009, as president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, Weisgerber asked Pope Benedict XVI to meet with a delegation of school survivors to acknowledge their pain and suffering. Kinew and Phil Fontaine were part of the group that travelled to the Vatican to hear the Pope address the Catholic Church's involvement in the residential school system and offer his personal apology.

"The Pope told us we need to move ahead, we need to work on reconciliation," Weisgerber said.

"This ceremony is a big sign but we have a lot of work to do in the Church and in the community of Manitoba. This ceremony brings all of us into a relationship that will enrich our lives."

The men shared a ceremonial pipe to the sounds of singing and drumming and exchanged gifts. The archbishop received a blanket decorated with the four colours of the Anishinaabe people while he presented his four new brothers with rosaries.

The ceremony, called Naabaagoondiwin, is traditionally carried out by families to welcome a new relative or to welcome newcomers into their territory or bring peace between warring nations, feuding families or rival villages.

"I have accepted James Weisgerber as part of my family, as my brother," Kinew said. "We are now prepared to move ahead as brothers and sisters. I leave the past of the residential schools behind me.

"The ceremony is a public event so that more survivors, the generation following who are still impacted and leaders can witness the historic and unbreakable bond that will be made."

(Prairie Messenger)

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