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Celebrating Grandfather Commanda, the Morning Star

by Erin Cummings

photo by Steven McFadden
photo by Steven McFadden

A few nights ago my neighbour and I climbed up onto his roof. We fondly reminisced under the stars about the recently departed William Commanda, his contribution to our world, and the beauty of his vigil and funeral service. My neighbour grew up in Kitigan Zibi, a First Nations community 130 kilometres north of Gatineau, during the time that Commanda served as chief. He had warm memories to share. Yet, Commanda’s profound impact on those who knew him personally is just a small grain of sand in the larger picture of his lifelong work toward a peaceful, just, and sustainable world. Named Ojigkwanong, or Morning Star, Commanda lived a life dedicated to learning and teaching. Described as a man who was humorous, kind, intelligent, dignified, and open, Commanda lived the changes he wished to see.

In the early morning hours of Aug. 3, 2011, he passed away at age 97 in his home on the Kitigan Zibi Anishnabeg First Nation territory near Maniwaki, Quebec. Grandfather Commanda, as he was known by many friends, colleagues, and students, was born at Kitigan Zibi on November 11, 1913. Throughout his life Commanda wore many different hats, working as a guide, trapper, woodsman, and master craftsman of birch bark canoes.

In 1951, he was elected chief of Kitigan Zibi, a position he would hold until 1970. As a trusted leader in his community, Commanda was given the honour of holding three sacred Wampum Belts – The Seven Fires Prophecy Belt, the Welcoming Belt, and the Jay Treaty Belt, which enshrine historic agreements intended to form a foundation for relationships based on mutual respect and autonomy between the Anishnabeg Nation and European newcomers.

Throughout his life, and particularly in his later years, Commanda worked tirelessly in his community, at the national level, and in international forums to promote practices of environmental stewardship, peace, justice, and the bridging of divides between peoples of different cultures and perspectives. A respected spokesperson and spiritual leader, Commanda organized numerous conferences and actions to promote environmental and human rights, restorative justice, peace, and healing.

Commanda was the subject of Lucie Ouimet’s documentary film Encounter with an Algonquin Seer, and the author of three books, entitled Learning from a Kindergarten Dropout, volumes I and II, and Passionate Waters-Butterfly Kisses.

He regularly held public sweat lodges at his home as a means for opening channels of communication, understanding, and healing between indigenous and non-Native Canadians. Commanda played a key role in creating the National Indigenous Centre on the Ottawa River’s Victoria Island and helped develop the Sacred Chaudière Site, which features an indigenous healing centre and peacebuilding conference centre.

Commanda founded the international organization Circle of All Nations in 1969. He invited people across the world to participate in annual conferences focused on fostering peace and mutual respect across boundaries of nation, culture, language, gender, age and race.

Though not fully realized before his passing, Commanda was also an integral part of the lobby to protect the Ottawa River as a designated heritage river.

In recognition of Commanda’s lifetime of important and constructive work, he received many accolades: he was named the honorary chair of the Ottawa Heritage River Designation Committee; he was awarded an honourary doctorate degree from the University of Ottawa; he held a key to the City of Ottawa; he was an officer of the Order of Canada; and he was a recipient of the National Aboriginal Achievement Awards’ Lifetime Achievement Award.

The three-day vigil at Kitigan Zibi that marked Commanda’s passing was widely attended by leaders and representatives of First Nations, Métis and Inuit organizations, federal and provincial politicians, foreign diplomats, environmental activists, artists, musicians, writers, filmmakers, and colleagues from across North America, Europe and South America.

It is fitting that Commanda’s funeral on Aug. 5, 2011 also marked the beginning of the 42nd annual Circle of All Nations gathering. Though he has passed on, his legacy continues to create positive connections between those who wish to work toward a more peaceful and sustainable world.

On that starlit rooftop, as our night came to a close, my neighbour asked me to promise that we would throw a party in honour of our ancestors, and for Grandfather Commanda. He asked that we remove the railings that separate our front porches and stretch a board of wood between the two, joining our homes. It was a lovely metaphor for Commanda’s life work – taking down the fences that separate us, laying bridges across divides, and most importantly, celebrating life.

This article first appeared in the Leveller Vol. 4, No. 1 (Sept./Oct. 2011) which can be read online at leveller.ca


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