CNS PHOTO | CHRIS HELGREN, REUTERS
Phil Fontaine, then leader of Canada's Assembly of First Nations, listens as Archbishop James Weisgerber speaks during a news conference in Rome in 2009.
While on the verge of laying down his title as archbishop of Winnipeg, James Weisgerber picked up a new title: Officer of the Order of Canada.
"I was very surprised," said Weisgerber about the day he received word of the honour from Ottawa. "This comes out of the blue. It was quite an ordinary day with extraordinary things happening for me."
The Order of Canada, administered by the governor general of Canada, recognizes Canadians who have made life-long contributions to the nation. Officer is one of three honours (companion, officer and member) within the Order of Canada.
Weisgerber received word of the honour the day before he retired after 13 years as archbishop of Winnipeg.
The outgoing prelate was honoured "for his work as a champion of reconciliation and social justice, promoting deeper understanding between aboriginal and non-aboriginal people," read the Dec. 30 announcement from Governor General David Johnston.
Although humbled, Weisgerber said this award recognizes more than just the efforts of one bishop.
"This is recognition that the faith communities have something to offer and that we have an important role to play," he said. "Being recognized in leadership by the government is really important for us as a community."
Born May 1, 1938, Weisgerber spent the first 50 years of his life in his home province of Saskatchewan. Ordained to the priesthood in 1963, he served in a variety of capacities, including dean of arts at Notre Dame College in Wilcox, rector of Holy Rosary Cathedral, and director of the pastoral and social justice office of the Archdiocese of Regina.
In 1990, he moved to Ottawa and took what he thought would be his last appointment, general secretary of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB).
"But then my life took a different turn," said Weisgerber, 75. "While I was general secretary of the conference the whole question of residential schools came up and while that is really important it is only part of the issue.
"The lack of understanding of the rest of Canadians about what causes all of this difficulty has always been a problem for me."
Weisgerber was appointed bishop of Saskatoon in 1996 before becoming archbishop in Winnipeg in 2000. During his time there, he worked with local aboriginal communities, attempting to strengthen ties weakened in part by the abuse at Indian residential schools.
During his tenure, Weisgerber became president of the CCCB. In that role he arranged a trip to Rome with aboriginal leaders where a formal apology for the residential schools was issued by then Pope Benedict.
"For me that was a real turning point," he said. "(Aboriginal leaders) asked me if they could adopt me which sort of made me part of the family. It was kind of a sign that we are not going anywhere, they're not going anywhere, so we better figure out how to get along."
Also among the 90 new appointments to the Order of Canada was Douglas Letson, the first lay president of Waterloo, Ont.'s St. Jerome's University, who was made a member of the order.