Over the past year, various Christian church denominations have reached out to aboriginals to make redress for the residential schools era. Now the Anishinaabe have returned the favor, adopting Roman Catholic Archbishop James Weisgerber of Winnipeg last month in a Naabaagoondiwin ceremony.
In April, Anishinaabe elders and community leaders brought Weisgerber symbolically into the tribe and called him brother, the first time such a step has been taken during the ongoing process of reconciliation between residential school survivors and the missionary churches that ran the schools.
"This is part of a long journey for me," Weisgerber told Canadian Catholic News (CCN) after the April 14 ceremony. The process began when, as a priest in Saskatchewan, he served as pastoral minister at four of the schools, which were then called Indian reserves, CCN reported. When in 1990 he heard former Assembly of First Nations National Chief Phil Fontaine start speaking publicly about his experiences at such a school, “I began to understand,” Weisgerber told the news service.
Fontaine and three other leaders adopted Weisgerber, CCN reported. Fontaine was joined by Tobasonakwut Kinew, an Anishinaabe elder, pipe carrier and member of the aboriginal medicine society Mideiwin; fellow Mideiwin member Fred Kelly, also an Anishinaabe elder, as well as part of the team that negotiated the Indian Residential School Agreement, and Bert Fontaine, Phil Fontaine’s brother and a leader of Sagkeeng First Nation. All of them had gone through the residential school system.
The residential school era stretched more than 150 years, from 1820 through the end of the 1900s, with a total of 139 schools run by the Roman Catholic, Anglican and United churches. Of the 150,000 students who attended, thousands suffered sexual, physical and psychological abuse.
Church denominations have reached out before. In January the Canadian Council of Catholic Bishops devoted a new page on its website to the Indigenous Peoples of the country. In February the World Council of Churches retracted its support for the Doctrine of Discovery. The Episcopal Church had done so in 2009.
Weisgerber is the one who first asked Pope Benedict XVI in 2009 to meet with school survivors, CCN said. Kinew and Phil Fontaine traveled with him as part of a delegation to the Vatican and receive a personal apology from the Pope. The Canadian government had apologized in 2008.
"The Pope told us we need to move ahead, we need to work on reconciliation," Weisgerber told CCN. "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."
Weisgerber said he was honored to have been inducted but knew it was part of a long-term process.
"I believe we have a very long way to go, but the road is worth travelling," he told CBC News. "As long as it takes to create the problem, it takes that long to heal it, and we've got to persevere."