Archbishop Sylvain Lavoie served as an Oblate missionary for many years before becoming archbishop of Keewatin-Le Pas, Man.


Archbishop Sylvain Lavoie served as an Oblate missionary for many years before becoming archbishop of Keewatin-Le Pas, Man.

March 17, 2014

The world view of First Nations peoples could be accepted as a gift to the Church, says retired Archbishop Sylvain Lavoie.

"Most of all, it's the world view of the sacred. We have the scientific world view; we explain everything scientifically. For the aboriginal people, the world view of the sacred is so powerful and so real.

"Everything is sacred and walking in harmony."

Lavoie spoke March 4 as part of a series of noon-hour seminars at Newman Theological College on the Medicine Wheel as Pastoral Ministry.

The retired archbishop of Keewatin-Le Pas, Man., who now lives in St. Albert, described how he came "to understand (aboriginal) culture from inside by living it."

As an Oblate missionary in northern Saskatchewan, he attended as many ceremonies as possible – pipe ceremonies, sweat lodges, feasts, sweetgrass ceremonies and the spirit lodge.

He took part in a traditional pow-wow where everyone dances for hours. At midnight, he was so tired that he went to sit in the bleachers.

"Yet everybody was dancing because it was closing. Everybody was going round and round and round. It just mesmerized me."

Then he felt the drumming welling up from inside himself. "I felt a belonging and a sense of being at home. That's when I realized this First Nations ministry was for me."

Later, he attended a four-day awareness experience at Saddle Lake where there were sweat lodges and talking circles. For four days, the 35 people there fasted from all food and water.

"Usually, there's an awareness that comes," he said.

At one awareness experience, someone said that 80 per cent of the aboriginal people who come to Poundmaker's Lodge for treatment for addictions suffer from unresolved grief.

Lavoie began to reflect on the things in his life that didn't work out as he would have liked. He went and sat in an old car, pounding on the steering wheel and on the seat as all those disappointments came back to him.

"I came out of there and I felt like a vacuum cleaner had cleaned me out."

Lavoie said, starting in the mid-1980s, his province of the Oblates became increasingly involved in ministry with aboriginal people. As growing numbers of the Oblates took up that ministry, they naturally began holding their own meetings with everyone sitting in a circle, rather than in rows.

"As more and more of us got involved in First Nations ministry, more and more of us realized the importance of the circle," the archbishop said. Sitting in a circle brings equality, and it makes for more eye contact. One senses the four directions and even the cross in the middle of the circle.

"There can be a real coming together of Christian faith and First Nations spirituality."

The circle is the basis of the medicine wheel. It represents the stages of life, the seasons and even colours, he said.

The drum is the first medicine wheel, Lavoie said. "It's the human heartbeat, but also the heartbeat of Mother Earth."

The circle begins in the east with sunrise or vision and other senses. The south represents one's belief system or memory, understanding and judging. In the west are the emotions and the north represents one's behaviour or actions.

It's important to name one's emotions, to express them and to share them, he said. "Emotions are a deeper reality (than feelings). They tell us who we are at that moment."


If we are healthy, the medicine wheel is the wellness wheel in which our deepest emotional needs for being loved, belonging and being valued are being met. If those needs are met, he said, one will have a positive belief system.

All emotions are positive because we have been gifted to feel, Lavoie said. Even depression and feeling suicidal are positive because they tell us to get help.

Our sins are rooted in emotions such as anger, resentment and bitterness. If our needs are not being met, our belief system gets warped. "We're not sure whether God loves us or not, we start thinking negative thoughts and emotions get painful."

At that point, a person starts acting out and his or her actions get destructive, the archbishop said. Temptations to prestige, possessions and power sneak in and begin to rule us.

To recover or to heal, one must go through the medicine wheel in reverse, he said. Harmful behaviour must be stopped, emotions must be dealt with and then the belief system can change.