A Canada Day without Grandfather William Commanda

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This is a follow-up to an earlier piece by Romola Trebilcock, remembering William Commanda on the occasion of National Aboriginal Day. Today, we share this reflection to complete this memorial tribute. 

Canada Day 2012 was the first one in almost a century that Grandfather William Commanda was not here. William Commanda was the most senior elder of the Algonquins of the Ottawa River Watershed, the Kichisippi: the Mighty River, that gave birth to the Canada we know - through the fur trades, the resources of its waters and land, the logging, the hydro power, mining and the labour of the First Peoples. He died last August at the age of 97.

Holder of the sacred Wampum Belt

For 40 years, he was the Holder of the sacred Three Figure Welcoming Wampum Belt from 1700, the one he sometimes also described as the sharing belt. Created out of the purple and white shells of the quahog in the distant past, the ancient wampum belt relics of the First Peoples recorded history, agreements, served as mnemonic devices and integrated sacred in the way of life. This belt was particularly important to him - it was created before there was a Canada, when his ancestors, realizing newcomers were arriving in their lands in increasing numbers, sick, bereft and fighting old battles, made their statement. 

The Indian in the centre drew the hands of the French and English together to entrench friendship, agreeing to share the vast land, the grand natural resources and their values in equal parts, and to forge a new and strong nation as envisioned by the prophecy of the Seven Fires. The fact that it was a sacred agreement was signified by the symbol of the Vatican on the side of the belt.

Of course, most of us know that this welcome was abused, and today, Indigenous Peoples are at the bottom of the proverbial totem pole, impacted by issues like the residential school abuses, health, poverty, education gaps, the housing and water and other environmental crises. As Grandfather once said, "Few will deny that we are the most disempowered and impoverished in the land of our ancestors, with our rights and heritage crushed, marginalized not just by governments and institutions but also by citizens who call this land home, and our history is little known to many of you."

Grandfather Commanda, himself a brilliant historian, a well-read kindergarten dropout, a tireless student and an astute politician, knew full well the abuses and struggles his land and peoples had endured, and he too had his moments of bitterness and despair. But 50 years ago, a spiritual awakening during his struggle with cancer revived the priceless understanding of life of his forefathers - that we are all related, that we are inter-connected - with each other, and with all of nature.

'We did not consent to the division of Turtle Island'

So he engaged in a multi-faceted effort to animate his values in his homeland, which, he often said, he had not given away. In this year that we acknowledge the War of 1812, I can't help but remember Grandfather Commanda saying, 'We did not consent to the division of Turtle Island (North America).'

How did he animate that conviction? He served as spiritual guide for the 1995 Sunbow Five Walk for Mother Earth, a walk that raised awareness about environmental issues and First Peoples, and took their healing ceremonies from First Encounter Beach in Cape Cod to Santa Barbara, California. Native and non-native people from both Canada and the United States participated, and they keep the spirit of the walk alive today across the continent. In his passionate advocacy for environmental stewardship, he put responsibility for Mother Earth before right or division, and followed her pathways.

In affirmation of the commitment of his ancestors to welcome the new people, Grandfather Commanda animated his inclusive Circle of All Nations by welcoming all into his life, no matter how humble or high profile, whatever the racial, cultural or religious background, in a spirit of equality.

His spirit of generosity was evident in the annual gathering he hosted in his home each August, the timing being a recall of the sophisticated astrological knowledge, including of meteor showers, that the ancient peoples acknowledged with ceremony along the Eastern seaboard; over the years, thousands of people from across the world participated in his gatherings, which were grounded in Indigenous wisdom, and focused on advancing respect for Mother Earth, social, justice, racial harmony and peace building.

Diversity, justice and respect for Mother Earth  

In fact, the traditional values of the Aboriginal Peoples constitute the underlying safety net in Canada, evident in its celebration of diversity, emphasis on social welfare, health and justice, principles of equality, and protection of children - because all the peoples of the world came here to escape from lives of oppression and strife in their homelands.

I recall sitting with Grandfather watching the news a few years ago; Chinese Canadians were celebrating fifty years of having the vote. I myself had left the oppression of the apartheid years of South Africa, and as an immigrant myself, grateful to be living in Canada, and, aware of the history of the Chinese in Canada, joined in their celebration. But sitting beside the Indigenous elder also made me question what it meant to be Canadian. Pursuing that question has enriched my personal and professional life immensely.

By the time of his death, William Commanda was holder of a Key to the City of Ottawa, the capital city, and Officer of the Order of Canada (he had been nominated for an Order of Canada, but was appointed at the higher level of Officer). These honours were a testament to the respect the country was beginning to acknowledge in his Indigenous heritage. He accepted these honours with grace and appreciation. But he never lost sight of his unique place here - he was at home.

We others were not, at least not till we asked the Indigenous Peoples to make us their relatives; they were the ones to connect us with the land; they are her first children. Grandfather Commanda, as many knew him, ignited that prayer for GINAWAYDAGANUC - for that connection.

He once said, I am in the wind, I am in the waters, and I am in the earth. He is indeed now in the earth we walk on, in this Canada. 

May we all walk on her with love, respect and responsibility.


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

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