He was named Ojigkwanong by his mother because he was born under the Morning Star, a symbol of enlightenment and vision. His path was set but there were a few bumps along the way.
Despite an unpromising childhood, William Commanda overcame the bitterness and anger of life on a reserve and was transformed by a simple message of forgiveness and reconciliation. Many considered him to be Canada's own Dalai Lama. But in a 2000 National Film Board documentary he described himself in less exalted terms. "I'm not big – just a little guy trying to do big things."
His life's mission was dedicated to a "Circle of All Nations" in which the races would all join in racial harmony but he was also committed to aboriginal self-determination and often made Canadian politicians uncomfortably aware of their failure to honour their obligations to native peoples and protection of the land.
Statements from aboriginal leaders across the country all mourn the loss of a unique individual who received many accolades and awards for his "courage to care." Commanda had been suffering from kidney failure since the beginning of the summer and died peacefully in his sleep on Aug. 3 at his home on the Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg Reserve in the Outaouais region of Quebec. He was 97 years old.
The first son of Alonzo and Marie Commanda and one of seven children, Commanda was born on Nov. 11, 1913. He was baptized William in the local Catholic church and attended church with his mother, but even at an early age he had enormous pride in his own heritage and a strong sense of self. He managed to avoid any attempts at assimilation by evading the usual roundup of children to attend the Catholic residential schools by disappearing into the bush.
Life on the reserve was a continual battle against the tyrannies of Indian land agents and game wardens who confiscated game meat hunted out of season. One winter when he was 10, his father brought home a moose. Several hours later, game wardens came and confiscated the meat which would have fed the family through the winter. Commanda's family nearly starved to death. As, Commanda remembers, "Life was spent hiding things. Serious, yet not serious."
He found work trapping and guiding but by the age of 15, he was illiterate, poor and often drunk. It was not until he began working in lumber camps, that he was taught to read and write by a close friend.
He learned everything else he had to know from his father who taught him to build sleds and snowshoes out of hardwood but it was his uncle Andre who taught him the artistry of canoe making. In 1940, he married Mary Smith who was originally from the Baskatong Reserve in Quebec and who had also learned traditional Algonquin skills from her family. Together they built more than 100 birch bark canoes as well as creating wooden furniture, leather, bead and quill work. Mary made the famous buckskin jacket for Pierre Trudeau. The Commandas' intention was to keep these skills alive among the Algonquin through books, several documentaries and workshops, which Commanda continued to hold on the Kitigan Zibi Reserve after Mary's death in 1987.
The great, great-grandson of Pakinawatik, the hereditary Algonquin chief who led his people to settle near the Ottawa River and who eventually obtained the land for the Kitigan Zibi Reserve, and the grandson of another Algonquin chief, Commanda was acclaimed Chief himself from 1951 to 1970. A passionate communicator, Commanda often expressed his bitterness, frustration and pain at the plight of his people. His social activism was focused on self-government for all aboriginal people and he was involved with the North American Indian Nation Government league.
But in 1961, Commanda experienced a life changing event that had a profound spiritual effect upon him and set him on a less adversarial path. He was diagnosed with malignant stomach cancer. The doctors gave him two weeks to live, but said with drastic surgery, he might hang on for a bit longer. He rejected surgery and returned to the Kitigan Zibi Reserve and turned to traditional native methods of healing. At the crisis point of the illness when the pain became unbearable, he begged his Creator to either spare his life or to take him away. When the crisis passed, he was a different man or as Commanda tells the story, "When I came back I was a changed person". His wife told him. "You used to curse all the time. Now we hear nothing. You're not the same. I don't know what's happening." His life now belonged to the Creator. He stopped drinking and his temper improved. His message now was one of forgiveness and love towards those who had persecuted or harmed his people but the message did not come easily to him because he found racism wherever he travelled in the country.
His first attempt at reconciliation began with other native tribes. In 1969, 1,500 Indians came to the Maniwaki reserve in what would later be called the first Iroquois/Algonquin reconciliation meeting. This spiritual gathering was so successful that thereafter, it became an integral part of his vision for "A Circle of All Nations" where people of all races could gather to discuss the four universal themes that were of great importance to Commanda : indigenous wisdom and respect for Mother Earth, racial harmony, social justice and peace."
In 1970 he was appointed keeper of three Algonquin wampum belts: the Seven Fires Prophesy belt, the 1701 Agreement belts and the Jay Treaty Border Crossing belt and he began to teach the meaning of the wampum belts to bridge the gap between cultures. "We must come together with one heart, one mind, one love and one determination," he said.
During the 1987 fourth First Ministers Conference on Indian Affairs, he interrupted the proceedings to lecture then-prime minister Brian Mulroney and the premiers on the history of the 1700s belt and the Algonquin's concept of sharing the bounties of their land with the French and English so that all races might live in harmony. The message was ignored and the federal and provincial governments refused to give aboriginals the right to self-government.
Undeterred, Commanda continued his teachings through an international, word-of-mouth campaign and through his outreach programs at home. When the Dalai Lama came to Canada in 1990 for the blessing of the Human Rights Monument in Ottawa, Commanda participated in the blessing. In 1991, he attended a three day Pre-Rio Earth Summit Conference hosted by president François Mitterand of France and conducted Pipe Ceremonies.
He was especially proud to be at the United Nations Cry of the Earth Conference in 1993. For the first time the United Nations held a conference for Native people in which they, themselves, participated. His simple but compelling message to forgive oneself first and then forgive others touched many people.
In the late 1990s, Romola Thumbadoo, a South Asian woman originally from South Africa, quit her government job to become Commanda's caregiver, companion and amanuensis. "He had a brilliant mind and an amazing way of expressing himself. He was meticulously precise in his use of the English language." But more important for Thumbadoo, "grandfather William walked everything he believed in."
At a time when environmentalism was in its infancy, Commanda saw the urgency in the protection of Mother Earth. "Today, if we look around, we can witness the results of our disregard for her well-being," he said. "It is now time for us to recognize her needs, to care for her, to rebalance our relationship with her, for if we do not do this, our children and their children will have no future. This will require us to rightly assert our love for all things and each other. Today is a good day to begin this work."
Even during his final illness, Commanda continued to be active. He had a vision to establish an indigenous centre on Victoria Island, the sacred spiritual grounds in the Ottawa River where native people now meet and pray. He also had hopes that the sacred Chaudiere Falls would be preserved in its natural state. This past weekend, the annual Circle of All Nations gathering was held as usual on the Kitigan Zibi Reserve and attended by hundreds. Commanda's body was placed in his own birch bark canoe to lie in state until his burial Aug. 5. After the ceremony, his canoe was paddled on the nearby lake.
William Commanda is predeceased by his wife, Mary, and leaves his adopted niece, Evelyn Derache-Commanda. An adopted son, Sonny Smith, died in the 1990s. He also leaves his only remaining sibling, Marie Commanda.
Special to The Globe and Mail