Before we knew that we were going to meet him, we had never heard of him. However, William Commanda is a renowned figure, a pillar of his community, a spiritual leader for so many people that his reputation reaches beyond Canada’s borders.
While the Commissioner of Official Languages does not have the mandate of promoting Aboriginal languages, we asked to meet with Elder Commanda to find out more about these languages and get his opinion on how to better support their preservation.
An illustrious life
William Commanda, or Ojigkwanong, his Algonquin name, was born in 1913. Yes, you did the math right—he’s nearly 100 years old. He is the descendant of Pakinawatik, who in the mid-19th century led his people to settle in a large territory near the confluence of the Désert and Gatineau rivers, part of which later became the Kitigan Zibi Algonquin reserve near Maniwaki in the Outaouais region. Elder Commanda was Chief of his community from 1951 to 1970, and he also worked as a woodsman, guide, trapper and birch bark canoe maker before becoming a speaker, spiritual guide, founder of the Circle of All Nations and defender of the environment, among other occupations.
Protecting the environment
When we arrived at the meeting site, fragrant smoke was dissipating in the air, giving the room a supernatural aura. Elder Commanda was seated in a small room. He shook our hands slowly, one at a time, observing us all the while. He exuded an air of calm and wisdom.
Shortly afterwards, Elder Commanda’s assistant, Romola Vasantha Thumbadoo, turned the conversation to the topic of Beaver Pond forest, which a real estate developer tried to cut down in early 2011. Located in the Kanata sector of Ottawa, this forest is sacred to the Aboriginal peoples and is home to great biodiversity. Elder Commanda is part of a group of citizens that is lobbying the province to end the deforestation and conduct an archaeological and environmental study of the site with the aim of protecting it. Several times during the interview, Elder Commanda explained that, in his mind, it is impossible to possess nature; it is nature that possesses us.
As well as defending the environment and keeping the stories of his people alive, Elder Commanda passes on his spiritual vision and the ancestral messages of sacred Wampum belts, of which he is the Keeper.
Made of blue and white beads cut from quahog clam shells, Wampum belts are a sort of code, a tool for passing ancestral knowledge from generation to generation. Of course, this requires an interpreter who holds the key to explaining the hidden meaning of these sacred objects. This is Elder Commanda’s role.
Shortly after our interview began, he asked Romola to bring him these valuable objects. He then purified them with smoke by burning herbs in a ritual bowl and reciting a prayer in Algonquin.
A message of peace and brotherhood
The first belt he showed us was the belt of the Great Peace of the 1700s, which evokes the spirit of welcoming and sharing that is the foundation of Aboriginal culture. It shows three silhouettes, symbolizing the French, the English and, in the middle, the Aboriginal peoples. Elder Commanda told us that the Aboriginal figure is in the middle because he is welcoming the newcomers and extending a hand, showing them how to become friends.
He also told us that the newcomers tried to destroy the Aboriginal peoples, but they destroyed themselves in the process and will suffer the consequences sooner or later. Then he talked about the tragic history of Indian residential schools. He told of how children were taken from their parents and sent far away. He also explained how this episode was disastrous for Aboriginal culture and had a dramatic effect on the children, who were forbidden to speak their language under threat of being denied food or being beaten.
At the crossroads
Elder Commanda then showed us the Prophecy of the Seven Fires belt, which is the oldest of the three of which he is the Keeper. The message of this Wampum tells of the choices we have to make in our relationships with one another and with all of Mother Earth's creatures. He encouraged us to ask ourselves if it’s time to make a choice between endless, unconstrained exploitation of natural resources and a new respect for Mother Earth.
Lands without borders
The last belt Elder Commanda showed us represents the Jay Treaty, a treaty that declared the right of free passage of Aboriginals between Canada and the United States. It symbolizes a fundamental value of Aboriginal culture: the lack of borders. The belt also shows the sacred link that binds Aboriginal people and their land, while illustrating their sense of responsibility to Mother Earth.
A fascinating encounter
By the end of our interview, we hadn’t really had the chance to learn Elder Commanda’s opinion on Aboriginal languages and their future. Rather, we let ourselves be guided by his stories, fascinated to discover a whole new perspective. His statements showed a profound desire to teach us the history, vision and culture of his people.The Commissioner was subsequently invited to meet with the teachers and Language Committee of Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg, a group that represents several Algonquin communities and whose members are passionate about reclaiming, protecting and revitalizing the language of their territory.