By Thandiwe Konguavi
Staff Writer

Gary Gagnon was standing outside the Archdiocese of Edmonton offices and wondering about his decision to take on a new job as Coordinator of the Office of Aboriginal Relations. As he gazed up at the sky, he saw an immense golden eagle slowly circling above, and he had the answer.

 “I got goosebumps,” he recalls. “I saw that eagle and I knew it was OK to open this office. It was OK to learn about other people, and let other people learn about us.”

In his unique new role, Gagnon acts as an ambassador and representative of Archbishop Richard Smith among the large Aboriginal community in the archdiocese. 

“I think we are the first (diocese) to have an office that’s designated — its own space and title — for the well-being of all Aboriginal Catholic people,” he said. “So I really thank His Grace for being open to creating an office like this.”

Born in St. Albert, Gary grew up in a strong Metis family that honoured both traditional Cree teachings and the Catholic faith. He credits both for saving his life.

As a shy and awkward teenager, he went through a dark period in which he turned to alcohol and drugs, and quickly spiralled into addiction. He felt confused about whether to turn to his tradition or to the Church for help. 

One day, as he knelt down to pray in the basement of the family home, he suddenly felt a pair of hands press down on his back. The next morning, his mother asked him what was wrong; she saw handprints on his back and three lines. 

There could be only one conclusion: God had touched him at that moment, and the three lines were the markings of eagle talons. He quit his substance abuse that very day and returned to the Church. 

One elder told him he had to choose either the Church way or the traditional way, but he decided to honour both.  

“I knew if I was going to get help, this was the path I had to go,” he said. “When that piece came, everything just fit. And I haven’t looked back since.”

Gagnon studied social work at the University of Regina. He returned to Edmonton to work for the Ben Calf Robe Society, a social service agency for Aboriginal people, and worked for many years with Aboriginal students at the Alberta School for the Deaf. 

“I wanted to be a social worker to be of service to people, to promote wellness and well-being amongst our community,” he said.

Fifteen years ago, he was asked to speak at Edmonton Catholic Schools about the traditional use of sweetgrass. That engagement propelled him into a career as a cultural facilitator at ECS, where he teaches about First Nations and Metis culture, spirituality, Catholic teachings, and the blending of the two. 

“Catholic and traditional ways do work together very nicely when they are freely allowed to be embraced, because there’s good in everything,” he said.

His experience on an archdiocesan Aboriginal advisory council eventually led to a secondment from ECS that allows him to work at the Archdiocese three days a week. He began his new position last Nov. 1.

Among the events that will be promoted through the new office are the feast days of St. Kateri Tekakwitha and Our Lady of Guadalupe, the annual Lac St. Anne Pilgrimage, and Aboriginal Cursillos. Education and creating awareness about traditional teachings will also be a big part of his role. 

Gagnon, who sees himself as a listener and helper, said the direction of the office will often be determined by the needs of the community.

He credits the Truth and Reconciliation Commission for fostering a change of hearts, not only here in Edmonton but across Canada. 

“I think there’s more willingness now to look at and to explore the good of the culture and what could be utilized in a church setting, in a Catholic setting,” said Gagnon. “And to me, that’s moving forward.

“I’d much rather acknowledge the positive — whether it’s my Catholic upbringing or traditional upbringing — than to look at the negative part of it, because that’s not going to make me grow.”

Teresa Kellendonk, head of the Department of Pastoral and Parish Services, said the Archdiocese needed a person with strong connections in the Aboriginal community to spearhead the new office, someone who could be a bridge to communication and relationship for the bishops.

“Gary knows who he is and he knows the community, what he can speak into and when he can’t, and how to consult with the elders and the chiefs,” she said. “And he’s very, very humble.”

“He’s got a beautiful heart to be in this ministry and to speak on behalf of the Archbishop and us, too.” 

Gagnon said some elders have told him that they are glad to have a voice at the Archdiocese, and they have encouraged him to do good things. He is looking forward to a bright future for the office. 

“I know it’s going to grow, but I can’t do that without your prayers.” 

Gary can be reached Monday through Wednesday at gary.gagnon@caedm.ca or 780-469-1010.