Stories from the 8th Fire production team.
Not all interviews make it into the final cut of a documentary. That's why we have a Q&A section on this website so people can see highlights from many of the dozens and dozens of interviews conducted by 8TH Fire teams across the country in 2010-2011. One such interview was with William Commanda, a revered Algonquin elder, who died August 3, 2011, several months after we filmed him at his home on Kitigan Zibi First Nation, near Ottawa.
Born in 1913, Commanda (whose name means "Morning Star") was a guide, trapper and maker of birchbark canoes, as well as chief of his community from 1951 to 1970. He spent years advocating forgiveness and reconciliation with non-Aboriginals, despite having lived through hard years of poverty and suffering. It's not every day that one meets a ninety-seven year old. That in itself is humbling - to speak with a person whose life has followed the trajectory of the 20th century.
Commanda lived through the First and Second World Wars, the Depression, the advent of the automobile, the transformation of Canada from a land of small towns into a country of big cities, and the astonishing changes brought about by the computer revolution. He lived through some of the worst years of the Indian Act, the era of Residential schools, the winning of the vote by Aboriginals in 1960, the crisis at Oka in 1990, and, more recently, the slow healing of his people and the resurgence of Aboriginal pride.
When an 8TH Fire crew met him for what was one of his last interviews, he welcomed us to his small but cozy bungalow on the edge of a river. The entire wall of his tiny living room was covered with photographs from his life, of which he was proud. He moved effortlessly from French to English and then to his native Algonquin language.
Commanda grew up in extreme poverty but was lucky enough to escape the horrors of Residential schools by running off to the bush with his uncle. He became a trapper and then a skilled canoe maker. He fell into alcoholism but then pulled himself together and became a role model for his community, particularly for troubled youth and people seeking guidance as they navigated the pain of their Residential school experiences. He counseled them to embrace reconciliation. He said he was able to forgive white men for the pain and suffering of his people.
In his later years, Commanda founded a peace organization called Circle of Nations, which advocates his message of reconciliation. He met with the Dalai Lama and Nelson Mandela and was awarded the Order of Canada.
You would expect a man who had lived such a long life, who was revered by so many, to be solemn, old in spirit, possibly even self-important in attitude. He was none of these things. He was playful, curious, open, unaffected. He shuffled when he walked and he spoke with difficulty, but his eyes were lively, even mischievous.
Commanda explained to us the history of the three sacred wampum belts, of which he was the keeper. The belts, one dating to the 18th century, commemorate treaties and meetings between Aboriginal peoples and European settlers. He went on to explain that the wampum belt was about "respecting everything that the Creator made -- the animals, fish, the water, the trees. Everything that grows. That was what they [the originators of the wampum belt] were talking about. If you don't respect all this you have to pay some day."
In his interview with Neil Docherty, Commanda said he realized that "all white men don't love Indians. I know them. I respect these men the same -- I don't care what they say behind me. When I see him, if he wants a cigarette, I give him a cigarette. If he wants a drink of water, I give him water to drink. I'm not stingy against him. We don't let anybody starve. If we have food, everybody eats. We try to understand, respect everything."
Asked what he believes is required for there to be a better relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people, Commanda said, "I think forgiveness is a big thing. What they did to us, we have to forgive them. A lot of people don't forgive. They just say 'No, I'm not forgiving that. My children are gone. They killed my children.' They get mad. They don't want to forgive. But I think they should forgive."
When the interview ended, we moved his furniture back into place, having displaced it for the filming. I noticed that his 1970's era side table had a leg missing. He said, "Oh, that's always breaking off". I fumbled with it, trying to screw the leg back into place. But the table was worn out, and I gave up, leaving it with only three legs. Commanda seemed unconcerned. He was used to it, he said.
I left wondering how a man so revered by his people, a man called upon regularly by Canadian officials as a respected elder to greet dignitaries, could live in such modest if not poor circumstances. It was my first brush with Aboriginal poverty, and his particular situation wasn't even really that bad compared to what many Aboriginals experience. I was moved by his dignity. He had seen it all in his nearly 100 years, witnessing the worst phases of the colonial relationship, but his sense of humour and his humanity remained intact. So too, judging from that interview, was his confidence, that - as the saying goes - after all the pain, this too will pass.
Jennifer Clibbon is a producer on episode 2 It's Time! of the 8TH Fire television series. She is also editorial coordinator of the 8TH Fire website.