“We need to be visible”: Elder Claudette Commanda brings teachings, activism and humor to uOttawa Chancery

When Claudette Commanda, an elder from Kitigan Zibi, was an undergraduate student, she didn’t hesitate to ask what programs and services the University of Ottawa offered to Aboriginal students.

The head of the university listed all the general services that were available at the time to all students.

“He didn’t have an answer for me because he didn’t know,” Commanda said. Canadian National Observer. “Well, that will change. I need this university to recognize indigenous students and support indigenous students.

Before Commanda walked through the door to the Principal’s office, she turned and told him that she would not only be the first Native Student Councilor, but also open the first Native Student Center.

She did both. Commanda founded the Native Student Association and held the first powwow on campus. Ten years later, she became the founding director of what is now the Mashkawazìwogamig Indigenous Resource Center.

“We have to be visible; it’s so important,” says Commanda. “We are the people. We are students. We need recognition. We need to have a student body like any other student body.

After graduating with a Bachelor of Arts and then attending law school at the University of Ottawa, Commanda has dedicated her career to paving the way for Indigenous student success. This work continues today: in July, she was appointed Chancellor of the University of Ottawa, becoming the first Indigenous person to hold this position.

With this, she brings the political will, activism, and traditional knowledge she has carried with her since walking on campus as an undergraduate.

The lessons of his elders

Commanda describes his grandfather William Commanda, a deceased Algonquin elder and leader, as a quiet man who “really could move mountains.”

When Claudette Commanda, an elder from Kitigan Zibi, was an undergraduate student, she didn’t hesitate to ask what programs and services the University of Ottawa offered to Aboriginal students.

“He could really move people, people moved for him,” Commanda says. “I knew him as a leader, and was the man radical.”

He taught her about pre-contact history, the great leaders and the atrocities of colonization. These stories from Turtle Island informed the radical Indigenous politics needed to confront the brutalities of colonial Canada, embodied by Indian agents, the RCMP and missionaries, says Commanda.

“He always said to me, ‘You don’t let anyone push you around and you don’t let anyone tell you this isn’t your land,'” she recalls.

Radical politics still inform Commanda’s worldview because it is necessary to assert self-determination, she says.

In a story Commanda tells about her grandfather, she asked for advice on attending law school. She brought tobacco then waited and waited for his answer, a lesson in patience.

An hour later he came back and told her to go to law school – learn the legal language of Canada and use it as a tool for change.

“The white man is not afraid of an Indian with a gun, the white man is afraid of an Indian with an education,” she recalled, telling her grandfather.

These are instrumental teachings that have helped Commanda take on leadership roles on campus as a student, as a lawyer and law professor, as Band Councilor for Kitigan Zibi, and now as Chancellor.

His maternal grandfather, Patrick Chausse, was a healer. He died when Commanda was still a child, but he had already imparted knowledge of spiritual and earthly medicines. From him, she learned the importance of love, healing and spirituality.

“He taught me the spiritual way, while my grandfather William, he taught me history and politics [way].

“I am grateful that the Creator has blessed me with these sages in my life,” she says.

Elder Claudette Commanda (center) with Jennifer Quaid (right) at a convocation ceremony. Photo courtesy of the University of Ottawa

Welcome to the circle

Commanda sees her role as chancellor as her opportunity to bring the university into a circle.

“That means you’re going to sit with me and you’re going to listen and I’m going to teach you,” Commanda says. “And then you walk away with a renewed understanding of who First Nations people are.”

It’s an experience, as Jennifer Quaid — who served with Commanda on the University of Ottawa’s board of governors throughout the pandemic — knows that well.

Meanwhile, Quaid was undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer and kept her camera off during virtual board meetings because she had lost her hair.

Quaid messaged Commanda apologizing for being off camera and shared his diagnosis.

“Immediately his concern was for me, for my well-being,” Quaid says.

Almost a year later, Quaid went to an opening ceremony that included a ceremonial spot and fire. Commanda spotted Quaid and pulled her into the Inner Circle for healing.

“That sense of caring and community – I was really touched,” says Quaid. “I have a special place in my heart for Elder Commanda.”

It is this generosity and kindness that will mark Commanda’s approach to the chancellery.

“The first thing I plan to do is welcome everyone,” she says.

“I want to welcome them to Algonquin territory. I want to welcome them into my chancellor space. I want to welcome them into my world of knowledge.

Matteo Cimellaro / Local Journalism Initiative / National Observer of Canada

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