Weisgerber stresses urgency of facing Aboriginal issues
By Deborah Gyapong
Canadian Catholic News
OTTAWA (CCN) — There is an urgent need to find a just solution to the plight of Aboriginal peoples, stressed Winnipeg Archbishop-emeritus James Weisgerber recently, warning of potential violence as problems continue to fester.
In Ottawa Sept. 12, the day after Governor General David Johnston invested him as an Officer of the Order of Canada for his work as a “champion of social change and justice,” Weisgerber said he saw many signs of hope, despite the many problems that have presented in recent years.
“It’s going to take us a long time to get there, but at least we’re talking about it. And it’s moving,” he said in an interview. “Is it going to move fast enough to avoid huge difficulties like violence? I’m not sure.”
He says he sees “an awful lot of young people that are very angry and very frustrated and often there can be temptation” to act violently.
He noted the Idle No More protests of late 2012 and 2013 were “very peaceable,” he said, but should “hotheads get involved it could become violent very quickly and that would not be good for us,” he said. “There’s a real urgency.”
When Weisgerber served as president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB), he brought about a historic meeting in 2009 of Assembly of First Nations national chief Phil Fontaine with Pope Benedict XVI in the Vatican, one of the achievements cited in the reasons for his Order of Canada.
Pope Benedict also offered his regrets for the abuses Aboriginal people faced in Indian residential schools. “Pope Benedict was very clear that this is a beginning not an end,” said the archbishop.
“In Catholic theology, when you go to confession, you examine your conscience, you admit you have done something wrong, you confess your sins, you commit yourself to never do it again, and to make up for all the harm you have caused,” Weisgerber said.
“I think that’s a long journey. I’m not sure of the federal government’s intent on that at all,” he said. “Many, many of us as Canadians aren’t either.”
“We have to figure out how we are going to live together,” he said. “There can’t be winners and losers as there are now. We’re either all going to win or we’re all going to lose.”
He acknowledges the issues are extremely complex, and “in order to move ahead on everything you have to have some understanding of what the issues are.”
The archbishop cited division within the Aboriginal community and lethargy on the part of the federal government. “There’s indifference on the part of average Canadians and a huge amount of racism,” he said. “Again, a lot of it is lack of understanding.” Many fall into a “blame the victim” mentality, when in fact many of the problems Aboriginal people face are a result of their oppression, he said.
The archbishop compared the present situation to what happens after a farmer harrows a field. Turning over the earth turns up rocks and other debris. “Lots of things are being turned up; they were all there before and we didn’t even see them,” he said. “Now they are being talked about, argued about and fought about.”
“It looks like it’s a lot worse, but I think it’s a lot better because people are beginning to understand this is a big, big, serious, serious issue and we have to finally become involved in it,” he said. “We have to do something about it.”
Though retired from running a diocese, Weisgerber is still active in pursuing reconciliation with Aboriginal peoples and continuing to preach and give talks.
The church has “a huge role to play,” because it can get the message out to average Canadians “who know nothing about this.”
“There’s no quick fix and it’s going to cost,” he said. “That’s not what we generally like to hear.”
Weisgerber said he is not sure where he stands on calls for a national inquiry into murdered and missing Aboriginal women. People want “somebody to take it seriously,” he said, but does one need an inquiry to show that, or “do you say we already know what the problem is and do something about it.”
He also stresses caution in moves to privatize land on reserves. He noted that under Pinochet, the Chilean government moved to allow individual members of reserves “to own their property so they could get loans.”
“Well, within a few years, the bank owned everything,” he said. “It sounds very nice and liberal to privatize and let people have private ownership, but in the end this could be just a ploy to do away with the reserves and then people are still going to be poor.”
On resource development in Canada, whether the oilsands, fracking or mining of mineral resources, Weisgerber pointed out other areas of potential tension.
“We’re in favour of native stuff until the values differ. Then we want to dismiss them,” he said. “So for instance, native culture, they think in seven generations. Our culture, which is heavily based on economics, thinks in four years and so, when you get to things like development of oilsands or uranium or all these things, we just say, we’ll do it and hope nothing happens.”