First Nations elders adopt Winnipeg archbishop

April 23, 2012

WINNIPEG - Anishinaabe elders and community leaders have adopted the archbishop of Winnipeg as their brother.

Archbishop James Weisgerber was adopted 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, instrumental in 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, all of whom were 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. Aside from being separated from their homes, many of the children suffered abuse at the hands of those who operated the schools.

During the ceremony, 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 to bring peace between warring nations, feuding families or rival villages.

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