Keeper of the wampum: William Commanda, Algonquin elder

William Commanda, an Algonquin elder and aboriginal role model, died Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2011 at 97. He spent years advocating forgiveness and reconciliation with non-aboriginals, despite having lived through hard years of poverty and suffering.

The subject of a CBC documentary, William Commanda was an aboriginal role model who died Wed. Aug. 3, at 97

William Commanda, a former chief of the Algonquin nation, died Aug. 3. Commanda (centre) uses sweetgrass during a remembrance ceremony in the Senate chamber on Parliament Hill in Ottawa Nov. 4, 2005. Former Algonquin chief Dominique Rankin and Senator Romeo D'Allaire look on. Tom Hanson/Canadian Press

William Commanda, an Algonquin elder and aboriginal role model, died Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2011 at 97. He spent years advocating forgiveness and reconciliation with non-aboriginals, despite having lived through hard years of poverty and suffering.

Born in 1913, at Kitigan Zibi reserve near Ottawa, Commanda (whose native name means "Morning Star") was a guide, trapper and expert maker of birchbark canoes, as well as being chief of his community from 1951-1970.

In his long life, he witnessed the tyranny of Indian Affairs agents, the loss of native lands, the trauma of residential schools and the recent emergence of a new generation of aboriginals reclaiming their identity and pride.

William Commanda is awarded the rank of Officer in the Order of Canada by Gov. Gen. Michaelle Jean at Rideau Hall in Ottawa November 5, 2009. Blair Gable/Reuters
"A page of our history has closed with William Commanda," said Marlene Jerome, vice-grand chief of the Algonquin Anishinabeg Nation Tribal Council. "But Algonquin people will have an everlasting memory of a great man dedicated to defending his people and to the protection of the environment."

Commanda was the great grandson of the Algonquin leader who led his people, in 1854, from the Lake of Two Mountains area near Montreal to the Kitigan Zibi reserve at Maniwaki, Que., 130 kilometres north of Ottawa.

Turned a troubled life around

Commanda's youth was spent on the reserve in poverty. In a CBC interview in April, he recalled that when he was around four years old, "I could be crying and asking for food and they looked at me, nobody ever gave me anything, they would let me starve."

He narrowly escaped being sent to a residential school because he hid out in the bush.

He worked as a trapper and logger and fell into alcoholism. But he turned his life around 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.

Commanda was fluent in English, French and his native Algonquin language.

I recently accompanied Neil Docherty, a director with CBC Television's documentary unit, to Kitigan Zibi, where he interviewed Commanda in his two-room home.

Still lively in his late 90s, Commanda had a mischievous sense of humour and a down-to-earth nature, despite his venerated status.

The interview is part of Eighth Fire: Canada, Aboriginal Peoples and the Way Forward, a documentary series airing in January that explores the theme of reconciliation and features stories from across Canada.

Keeper of the wampum

During the interview, Docherty and Commanda discussed the three sacred wampum belts, of which Commanda was the keeper.

These belts commemorate treaties and meetings between aboriginal peoples and European settlers.

"He clearly felt a weight of history, as the keeper of these belts. He laid out the Welcoming Belt of the 1700s. This is his ancestors' view of the contract and it shows an Englishman and a Frenchman holding hands with an aboriginal," Docherty recalled.

The promise, according to William Commanda, was "to try to respect and keep harmony with nature as we had lived before. And they both agreed that they would do that."

Commanda also spoke about what it will take to repair the tortured relationship between aboriginals and non-aboriginals. He said in the interview: "I think forgiveness is a big thing. What they did to us, we have to forgive."

"This from a 97 year old, who had witnessed terrible visitation on his people — loss of land, plagues, residential schools — and yet could find this generosity," said Docherty.

Commanda met many famous people but lived in very modest circumstances. The Dalai Lama greets Commanda and Mohawk spiritual leader Rohahes Ian Phillips in Ottawa April 23, 2004. Tom Hanson/Canadian Press
Commanda in his later years founded a peace organization called Circle of Nations, which advocated his message of reconciliation. He met with the Dalai Lama and Nelson Mandela and was awarded the Order of Canada. But he lived, to the end of his life, in very modest circumstances at Kitigan Zibi, in his tiny house next to family members.

Asked what he most wishes for, Commanda told Docherty: "I would very much like to see whoever created us, who made us to be in this world, understand us and help us to gain the right way. Because we can't do it alone. You need to act together."

'Everything that grows'

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."

The belt that told the story of the first contact "promised that they would respect nature and take care of everything, not abuse anything.

"Besides that, they talked about the full colours of the people in the world. There were white people, red people, black people, the full colours of people."

In his long conversation with 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. But could I go to Stephen Harper and say, 'do you love me?' I don't know what he'd say. I don't think he'd say that he loves me.

"I don't vote. Never voted in my life. Never bothered with politics, no. I just work, that's all."

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."


Jennifer Clibbon is a radio producer with CBC Syndication. She began living and working in Russia as a freelance journalist in 1985 and was the news producer in the CBC's Moscow bureau from 2000 to 2003.