CNS PHOTO | CHRIS HELGREN, REUTERS
Archbishop James Weisgerber speaks alongside Phil Fontaine, then-leader of the Assembly of First Nations, during a 2009 news conference in Rome.
November 4, 2013
CANADIAN CATHOLIC NEWS
As Winnipeg Archbishop James Weisgerber prepares to retire he remains concerned about justice for Canada's aboriginal peoples.
"I don't think there is any issue facing Canadians more serious than this one," the archbishop said on the day Pope Francis announced he had accepted Weisgerber's resignation. "And I don't think we're taking it that seriously."
The Canadian government is banking on oil production and building pipelines to transport it across the country and "all of it goes across aboriginal land," he said. "Nobody's talking about the need to negotiate on all of this. I'm not sure it's on the agenda of ordinary Canadians or on the agenda of the Church."
The recent violent demonstration in New Brunswick over fracking also represents a clash over resources and land, he noted.
Weisgerber said the Church needs to be involved in discussions about aboriginal rights "and our people need to be sensitized to the parameters of this discussion."
"My concern has got to do with people we have dealt with badly, that we have mistreated, through lots of ignorance and good will, but we have not respected them," he said.
Weisgerber warned if there is no dialogue, extremists will move in as they have in the Israeli/Palestinian issue.
Born in Vibank, Sask., in 1938, Weisgerber offered his resignation when he reached the mandatory retirement age of 75 earlier this year.
The pope appointed Victoria Bishop Richard Gagnon as the new archbishop of Winnipeg, but Weisgerber will serve as apostolic administrator until Gagnon is installed later this year or early next year.
Gagnon, who is out of the country, responded to his appointment with a statement posted on the Victoria diocesan website. He said he accepted the appointment "with humility and a total reliance on the grace of God."
Weisgerber said his home town of Vibank was "so completely Catholic" and "the Church was at the centre of everything in our existence" that he knew he wanted to be a priest by the age of six.
Ordained a priest in 1963 for the Regina Archdiocese, Weisgerber worked on reserves where he "got to know aboriginal people and appreciate very much who they were."
In 1990, he came to Ottawa to serve as the secretary general of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) when news of abuses at Indian Residential Schools broke in the media.
"I hadn't even got the chair of the secretary general warm," he said. This put him on a "long, steep learning curve."
After six years at the CCCB, Pope John Paul II named him bishop of Saskatoon. Four years later, in 2000, he was named the sixth archbishop of Winnipeg.
Winnipeg has about 75,000 aboriginal people in the diocese and includes about a dozen reserves, he said.
The majority of Canada's aboriginal peoples have been Christian and many of them Catholic, he said.
"How do we embrace the richness of each other's culture?" he asked. "That is challenging to everybody, including the aboriginal people, to be open to others."
"It's so clear to me that in Manitoba the future is reconciliation with aboriginal people," he said. "The stakes are very high. There can't be winners and losers. Either we all win or we all lose."
"I have tried very hard to bring this issue into the life of the Church," he said.
Winnipeg also has a large Filipino population of about 60,000 who comprise the majority of practising Catholics in the diocese, he said. Some of the largest parishes, including the cathedral, are 90 per cent Filipino.
The challenge is to be open to one another, he said, to become a community and not separate ones living side by side, and worshipping side by side.
Weisgerber continued to serve on the national stage after becoming a bishop, eventually serving as president of the CCCB from 2007-2009.
In 2009, he arranged an historic meeting for representatives of Assembly of First Nations with Pope Benedict XVI, where the pope "expressed sorrow at the anguish caused by 'the deplorable conduct of some members of the Church' in the operations and management of the former Indian residential schools," according to a CCCB news release.
Weisgerber plans to return to Regina where his younger sister still lives.
His future plans include doing a study of Paul's Letter to the Romans "and how that relates to who we are and what we're trying to do today," he said. "I love studying, teaching and preaching. Those are the loves of my life."
The archbishop also plans to walk Camino de Santiago de Compostela across northern Spain perhaps next year.