Honouring Elder William Commanda

Written by guest blogger Denise Deby, who writes on local and global social and environmental issues.

A bright light has gone out in Ottawa. The ‘Morning Star,’ though, continues to illuminate our way.

On August 3, Algonquin Elder William Commanda – whose name, Ojigkwanong, means Morning Star – passed away at the age of 97 at his home in Kitigan Zibi near Maniwaki.

Commanda, also called “Grandfather,” was a spiritual leader, teacher, former chief and much more – a trapper, guide and expert canoe maker, and a spokesperson for the environment and for peace among cultures. He was active internationally, but his efforts to promote respect for the earth often centred on Ottawa. He spoke out against pollution of the Ottawa River and destruction of the South March Highlands. He described the South March Highlands as a site of irreplaceable biodiversity and archaeological heritage, and “a most sacred landscape.” I heard him speak eloquently in January about the need to preserve the Beaver Pond Forest.

Grandfather Commanda was also working toward the establishment of an indigenous centre, Asinabka, on Victoria Island and at Chaudière Falls to serve as a national historic site and a peace-building and environmental centre.

He was given the key to the City of Ottawa in 2006, named an Officer of the Order of Canada in 2008, and received a lifetime achievement award from the National Aboriginal Achievement Awards Foundation in 2010. He greeted the Dalai Lama and Nelson Mandela during their respective visits to Ottawa in 1990 and 1998, received numerous other awards and honours for conservation and peace, and featured in several documentaries including the National Film Board’s Ojigkwanong: Encounter with an Algonquin Sage.

Grandfather was also keeper of three sacred wampum belts, which he said documented and guided relationships among people and between people and nature. He founded the Circle of All Nations, a group “committed to respect for Mother Earth, promotion of racial harmony, advancement of social justice, recognition and honouring of indigenous wisdom and peace building.” He advised on ecological issues and appeared at several United Nations conferences.

His messages of reconciliation and environmental stewardship inspired many people. Earlier this year, after he said that the Beaver Pond Forest was sacred, Daniel Bernard Amikwabe kept a Sacred Fire burning at the Forest to protest its destruction. Others have spoken of the importance of carrying on his work.

In a letter dated January 6, 2011 to Ottawa’s Mayor and City Councillors about the South March Highlands, Grandfather wrote: “…in the final analysis, we are all connected – with the water we drink, the air we breathe, with the food, medicines and gifts the earth provides us, with the animal teachers, with the larger universe, and with each other.” Words that ought to continue to guide our decisions and choices.


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An event to celebrate the natural world and honour Grandfather Commanda will take place at Beaver Pond Park, at the end of Walden Drive in Kanata, on Saturday, September 10 from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. The event will include a Sunrise Ceremony and Sacred Fire, Barbecue Lunch and Dinner, an edible plant walk with Martha Weber, a cycle with Kurtis Benedetti, a photo contest, music, guest speakers and more. See http://www.union-algonquin-union.com/ or http://www.facebook.com/?ref=home#!/event.php?eid=258047284219720 for details. Everyone is welcome, and donations and volunteers for the event are also appreciated.

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