Remembering William Commanda on National Aboriginal Day

William Commanda. (Photo: ccamu.ca)

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One year ago today, June 21, 2011, was the date of Grandfather William Commanda's last physical visit to Asinabka, Victoria Island.

The renowned Indigneous leader, Sacred Wampum Belt Carrier, Officer of the Order of Canada, recipient of the Lifetime National Aboriginal Achievement Award, holder of the Key to the City of Ottawa and two honorary doctorate degrees, died on August 3, 2011.

It was rather a miracle that he was at Asinabka at all. He had survived some excruciating days of pain and illness, complications incurred in hospital during the latter stages of his battle with kidney disease, and only the night before had seemed to be on the doorstep of death. But, the 97-year-old was incredibly perky on the morning of the summer solstice, entertaining no less than 15 visitors in his hospital room before being discharged to head to his home in Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg, Quebec - via Asinabka, Victoria Island, Ontario.

A sacred meeting place

Well over 100 people were already there for the annual Circle of All Nations Pipe Ceremony that he had hosted for over a decade: to honour the summer solstice, National Aboriginal Day and the vision for the Asinabka National Indigenous Centre - a healing and peace-building centre he had worked hard to see established at the ancient sacred meeting place of his Indigenous ancestors.

Asinabka is the site of the Sacred Chaudiere Falls, the circular waterfalls where the most ancient rocks of the world took the shape of the bowl of the pipe and the rising vapours were a reflection of the fire and smoke of prayers rising to the Great Mystery on the wings of the wind - and at no time was the ancient spiritual ritual of smoking the pipe more important than at this period that marked the longest day and the shortest night.

So, year after year, Grandfather Commanda, several pipe carriers, elders honouring fire and water and drummers would gather to conduct the special ceremony, sitting dauntless on the inhospitable gravel driveway - the spot identified for the central fire of the proposed Indigenous Centre - facing the east and the blazing sun, praying an ancient prayer for Mother Earth, and the other key elements, the fire, the waters and the wind, the four cardinal directions, and all else incorporated in the Law of Nature: a prayer for Ginawaydaganuc - All My Relations.

This prayer embraced nature and people and affirmed the deep inter-connection between them. It was also a prayer for the healing of relationships between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples. Over the years, increasing numbers of non-Aboriginal Peoples had been drawn to this annual activity.

The importance of language

This time, last year, William Commanda sat in his car. The people thronged past him for an hour and a half, and he greeted each of them in turn. One thing was different - he spoke Algonquin throughout. This was a deep message about the animation of the ancient language of the land - William was fully trilingual, and generally offered his prayers and greetings in Algonquin, then translated himself into English and French, in his personal version of the bilingualism ideal - this time he was telling his friends that he would be counting on them to keep his language alive.

Only a few weeks before, the Commissioner of Official Languages had visited him, the first official acknowledgement of the languages of the First Peoples. Indigenous languages are complex, and hold many complex thoughts; as they disappear, so do those complex understandings of life, and, indeed, of the sacred principles of biodiversity.

This was one of the reasons that he had advocated so hard with the National Capital Commission (NCC) and all levels of government for the establishment of the Indigenous Centre. Its core objective is to awaken Indigenous ideology to advance healing at three fundamental levels: healing, strengthening and unifying indigenous peoples; healing individual and collective relationships with Mother Earth; and healing relationships with all others. The integrated vision, articulated in his book Learning from a Kindergarten Dropout, thus focuses on the healing, strengthening and unification of Aboriginal peoples and the sharing of Indigenous ideology, values and culture with all others, in order to animate a Circle of All Nations, a Culture of Peace consistent with the message of the Three Figure Wampum Belt.

Despite years of effort, and eventual endorsement from the City of Ottawa, the dream remains unfulfilled. In fact, not even portable toilets such as you see at other NCC parks are yet available in this place identified in NCC's plans of the past 40 years as the site of Indigenous gathering.

Official declarations, past and present

June 21 was declared National Aboriginal Day by former Governor General Romeo Leblanc in 1996. But it was William Commanda's friend Jules Sioui who had affirmed it as Indian Day in 1945. He was the activist who had created the North American Indian Nations Government movement, (William Commanda remained its Supreme Chief until his death), and they had advocated at the United Nations level for the engagement of the Indigenous voice on global issues.

Canada and the United States were the countries that resisted signing the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples until two years ago - surely its citizens at large should question why?

Certainly over the last few years, issues like the residential school abuses, health, poverty, education gaps, the housing and water and other environmental crises in Aboriginal communities have been brought to public attention regularly. Surely, in an affluent country like Canada, it is a shame that Third World Canada, a documentary about First Nations suicide being screened at the Asinabka: Film and Media Arts Festival this very week, is necessary at all.

A prayer for Mother Earth

It is also somewhat ironic that the UN Sustainable Development Conference RIO+20 is taking place at this precise moment. It was in the 1940s that Indigenous peoples brought their concerns about the changing climate to the UN's attention.

It was only in 1991, at the Pre-Rio Earth Summit in France that the world began to focus its collective attention on this mounting crisis. Grandfather Commanda himself conducted Pipe Ceremonies there, igniting a global prayer for the environment. It burst into flame in the voices of young people and Indigenous peoples at COP 17 in South Africa last November; undoubtedly the world now realizes it is grappling with the immense challenges of climate change.

Sadly, the powers governing Grandfather Commanda's homeland do not yet appear to apprehend the gravity of the crisis. Still, he would conduct another Pipe Ceremony at Asinabka to make them relations of his Mother Earth in a way that would move beyond unmitigated exploitation of her resources, to a relationship focused on stewardship of her gifts for future generations. Yes, I am sure that would be his prayer for us this June 21, 2012.

Romola Trebilcock is co-ordinator of Circle of All Nations.

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