By Deborah Gyapong
Catholic News Service
OTTAWA, Ontario (CNS) — As Archbishop James Weisgerber of Winnipeg, Manitoba, 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," Archbishop Weisgerber said Oct. 28, the day Pope Francis announced that he had accepted the archbishop’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 hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, also represents a clash over resources and land, he said.
Aboriginal peoples have different understandings of the meaning of aboriginal rights, sovereignty, and title "that lead to very different conclusions," Archbishop Weisgerber said. "I feel the church has to be involved, 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.
Archbishop Weisgerber was born in Vibank, Saskatchewan in 1938, and said the community was "so completely Catholic" and "the church was at the center of everything in our existence" that it was hard to avoid becoming a priest in those circumstances. He said he knew he wanted to be a priest by the age of 6: "I never wanted to do anything else."
Ordained a priest in 1963 in the Regina Archdiocese, he 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, and news of abuses at Indian residential schools broke.
"I hadn’t even got the chair of the secretary-general warm," he said. This put him on a "long, steep learning curve."
He was named bishop of Saskatoon in 1996 and, four years later, he was named archbishop of Winnipeg.
Winnipeg has about 75,000 aboriginal people in the archdiocese, which 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 the 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 added.
Winnipeg also has about 60,000 Filipinos who make up the majority of practicing Catholics in the diocese, he said. Some of the largest parishes, including the cathedral, are 90 percent Filipino.
The challenge is to be open to one another, he said, to become a community and not separate people living side by side, and worshipping side by side.
Archbishop Weisgerber served the bishops’ conference as co-treasurer, vice president and as president from 2007 to 2009.
In 2009, he arranged a meeting for representatives of Assembly of First Nations with Pope Benedict XVI. In that meeting, 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.
The archbishop said he plans to return to Regina, where his younger sister still lives. Among his future plans, he said he hopes to walk the Way of St. James across northern Spain, perhaps next year. He said he has not started training yet for the pilgrimage.
Pope Francis appointed Bishop Richard Gagnon of Victoria, British Columbia, as the next Winnipeg archbishop. Archbishop Weisgerber will remain as apostolic administrator until Archbishop Gagnon is installed later this year or early next year.
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