Anyone who knew André Achille Goussaert will tell you he was like a cat with nine lives — except those who knew him particularly well. To them, the Manitoban likely sojourned at least a couple dozen lives within the 90 years he spent on Earth.
"God, the stories he could tell," daughter Vera says.
"He was definitely like a lovable feline, because I mean, just the way he somehow survived all these weird things and disasters. It’s really incredible."
Goussaert was born in a small village called Beveren-Leie in Belgium, between the first and second German occupations of that country. It was 1930, and within just 10 years as a child, Goussaert had to learn to grow up in a world of war and repression. Every day was a miracle of survival.
Cut to the 1950s and ‘60s, when Goussaert moved to Canada’s northern territories as a missionary above and slightly below the Arctic Circle.
There, where he worked with the Inuit for decades to develop member-owned and member-controlled retail co-ops.
Goussaert almost died five or six times that Vera can recall him telling her about.
Once, he was nearly poisoned by carbon monoxide while travelling by snowmobile between communities.
At another point, he was in an igloo on a stormy night in a remote area. After a stove toppled, he sustained burns so bad all over his body he woke up in an Edmonton hospital a day later, following a long-drawn mission to chase radio signals at the closest town several hundred kilometres away for Goussaert to get air transport.
Then there was the shipwreck and the many car crashes. "No wonder he was inducted into the Order of Canada for all the work he did up north," Vera says, chuckling.
Of course, there was also the Winnipeg plane crash in 2000.
Goussaert was one of only eight people en route from Flin Flon when the aircraft had to make an emergency landing in the Assiniboine Forest.
Goussaert even lived through nearly a decade after his Parkinson’s disease diagnosis.
So, naturally, when he peacefully entered eternal life April 9, on a Friday at the Actionmarguerite Saint-Boniface assisted living facility in Winnipeg, his friends and family were kind of surprised.
"But also, not really," Vera says.
"After all, he lived an exceptional life worth remembering."
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Goussaert joined the novitiate of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate in 1949, after he finished high school education in the Belgian municipality of Waregem. Six years later, he was ordained a priest.
It was his unwavering faith that provided him the opportunity to move to Canada, and what helped him survive all his obstacles in life. But religion wasn’t the only thing that guided Goussaert’s journey.
"My dad truly trusted in the importance of self-determination and socio-economic justice," Vera says.
"He valued those principles through and through — even long after he retired, but still kept working for that here in Winnipeg. And even more than a missionary, his purpose was to help the Inuit gain their own power by creating their own businesses with their own mandates."
That’s why Goussaert focused so much on first developing, then sustaining, co-ops throughout the North. He believed it was the best way to empower Indigenous peoples.
In many ways, it’s also what inspired Vera, who’s been executive director of the Manitoba Cooperative Association for 16 years.
Goussaert was elected as the first president of the Canadian Arctic Co-operative Federation Limited in 1972.
After resigning from priesthood in 1980, he became chief executive officer of Arctic Co-operatives Ltd. — a service federation owned and controlled by 32 community-based businesses located in Nunavut, Northwest Territories and Yukon. It continues to employ thousands.
Throughout this time, he paved the way for Inuit to take more prominent roles at the co-ops for grocery stores or fishing which he would help build across northern communities. At every turn, he would step down when an Inuk was interested in an executive role.
Goussaert also quickly learned Inuktitut. He became so fluent Bill Lyall, an Inuit politician and president of the Cambridge Bay co-op, says Goussaert spoke in the language better than him.
"When I came out of residential school, I didn’t know a single word of my own language after seven years," Lyall says. "André was just an exceptional man, truly one of a kind. He was a great mentor to me and he helped our communities in any way that he could; be it electrician, carpenter, you name it."
Many awards later, when Goussaert finally retired in 1990, he couldn’t get away from his passions altogether.
He continued to volunteer and sit on the boards of Red River Co-op, Boni Co-op, Manitoba Co-op Council and Local Investment Toward Employment (LITE).
Gilberte Proteau and Guy Jubinville got to know Goussaert through the Red River Co-op board.
"He was an amazing priest, a great man, and a devoted husband and father. Because of his deep faith, he did wonders with the Inuit," Proteau says.
"It was a privilege to have known him," says Jubinville.
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Goussaert was in Cambridge Bay when he fell in love at first sight.
His wife, Beatrice Huysentruyt, whom he called Bea, then moved with him to Yellowknife in 1980, where Vera was born.
Five years later, the family moved to Winnipeg. They’ve called Manitoba home ever since.
"He was an older parent, and so when I was growing up, he’d been retired already. I spent a lot more time with him than most kids get to — getting to know him, love him and just being around him," Vera says.
Goussaert’s friends and family describe him as one of the calmest and most peace-loving people they’ve ever known.
His Zen attitude also translated to his love for gardening.
Goussaert had the kind of smile that filled any room, they said.
He went to St. Ignatius Parish almost every day and built a network of friendships called the "coffee gang," with whom he’d spend hours upon hours after church — debating the day’s news, discussing philosophy and theology or just making small talk.
A small funeral was held for Goussaert at that same church. Many people wished to attend but couldn’t because of COVID-19 pandemic restrictions.
"Even as his dementia kept setting in and his Parkinson’s was getting worse, he continued to make everyone smile as much as he could," Vera says.
"And I guess, in the end, that’s what matters, right?
"That people remember him in this way — because we’re all so proud of him, even if he’d actually probably hate how much we’re showering him with praises."