Aboriginal elders in Winnipeg have symbolically adopted a Roman Catholic archbishop, in a powerful gesture of reconciliation following the residential schools experience.

Archbishop James Weisgerber, head of the Archdiocese of Winnipeg, was adopted by a group of elders and former residential school students in a traditional Ojibway ceremony on Saturday.

"He's accepted the invitation to be a part of our family, be part of our community — to be, in fact, a real brother in this large, very large extended family," said Phil Fontaine, former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, who was among those who took part in the adoption ceremony.

Weisgerber says he is honoured to join the aboriginal community, adding that the symbolic adoption is a step towards healing between aboriginal and non-aboriginal Canadians.

"I believe we have a very long way to go, but the road is worth travelling," Weisgerber said.

"As long as it takes to create the problem, it takes that long to heal it, and we've got to persevere."

The Catholic church was one of several churches involved in the operation of about 130 residential schools across Canada — excluding Newfoundland, Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick — starting in the mid-19th century. The last school closed in 1996.

All in all, about 150,000 aboriginal, Inuit and Métis children were removed from their communities and forced to attend the schools, where many reported experiencing emotional, physical and sexual abuse.

The church-run, government-funded schools aimed to assimilate aboriginal children into European-Canadian society.

"In so many ways, our presence here has damaged the aboriginal people — their culture, their language, their communities — and they are the ones who are asking us for reconciliation," Weisgerber said.

"This is a huge kind of symbolic gesture."

The federal government is in the midst of a $5-billion settlement agreement aimed at compensating some of the former students, also known as survivors.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a panel appointed by the federal government, is collecting anecdotes from survivors and others who were involved in residential schools.