Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Archbishop delights in his new 'brothers'

Weisgerber 'blown away' by ceremony

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There were sweetgrass and tobacco, solemn tradition intermingling with laughter, unspeakable memories and hope for the future, dancing and a feast, cultures coming together.

Archdiocese of Winnipeg Archbishop James Weisgerber was the central figure at Thunderbird House Saturday, still humbled and trying to come to grips with the generosity of spirit that would allow aboriginal people to show forgiveness for the church's role in residential schools.

Weisgerber was adopted Saturday as a brother by Bert and Phil Fontaine, and elders Fred Kelly and Tobasonakwut Kinew, the first such traditional Naabaagoodiwin ceremony celebrated as an act of reconciliation.

"I was very honoured. I was blown away," said Weisgerber, dressed in his traditional black robes and a pair of moccasins. "I've never had a brother. Now I've got four."

Weisgerber spoke repeatedly about the generosity of aboriginal people. "They're the ones who've been hurt.

"As colonials, we're the ones who made the error 125 years ago," said Weisgerber, who acknowledged the damage his church had done to aboriginal people and their culture.

All Manitobans must make the commitment to reconciliation, the archbishop said. "All of us have to do this.

"The heart of reconciliation is forgiveness. There has to be a change of heart. There's a lot of racism on both sides of the divide," he said. "I believe we have a very long way to go, but it's a road worth travelling."

Former Assembly of First Nations national chief Phil Fontaine issued his own apology -- to the Catholics who had shown goodness, but whom he had for years "tarred with the same brush" in "indiscriminately" expressing his bitterness and anger at his treatment as a child in the residential schools.

"That was unfair," Fontaine said. "I've been thinking about this for a long time. It's been a struggle to find some balance in this tragic history."

Fontaine said there were long discussions among the four men before the adoption proposal was put to Weisgerber.

"The community had to be willing to adopt Archbishop Weisgerber," he said.

It was Weisgerber who three years ago asked Pope Benedict XVI to meet with residential school survivors, Fontaine pointed out.

That wasn't a universally popular idea in the Catholic Church, said Weisgerber, "But once the Pope said yes...." Weisgerber said he has been receiving emails from clergy across the country since word broke about the adoption.

Grand Chief Derek Nepinak of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs said he has not contacted other aboriginal leaders about the adoption ceremony.

"This is an initiative led by individuals. It's not a political initiative," Nepinak said. "I'm honoured to be here. This is an historic event. My mom went to residential schools, her mom went, and her mom's mum went."

Nepinak said Saturday's ceremony was a combination of the "relatively recent arrival of the Roman Catholic Church and its ceremonies" and ages-old aboriginal ceremonies.

Kinew told the community gathering "the ceremony means we are now prepared to move ahead... I want to leave residential schools behind me because I want to live my life in a good way."

Amid the solemnity was frequent humour.

Kelly noted the ceremony was being held at Main Street and Higgins Avenue and named several hotels in the area with questionable reputations. "So, archbishop, welcome to the neighbourhood," Kelly laughed.

Kinew said his seven-year-old grandson calls Weisgerber "Jimmy."

Kinew's son, journalist Wab Kinew, hosted the ceremony, performing songs he'd written for the occasion, but peppering the afternoon with quips.

Inviting Weisgerber to lead participants and spectators in a dance, Kinew suggested the 73-year-old archbishop perform a hoop dance with 40 hoops.

When a cellphone rang at an especially serious moment, Kinew said: "That's God on line 1."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 16, 2012 B2

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