‘We need to be visible’: Elder Claudette Commanda brings teachings, activism and humor to University of Ottawa chancery

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

The university director listed the general services available to all students at that time.

“I didn’t have an answer for myself because I didn’t know,” Commanda said. Canadian National Observer. “Well, that’s going to change. I need this university to recognize native students and support native students.”

Before Commanda walked out the door of the principal’s office, she turned and told him that she would not only be the first councilor of an indigenous student association, but also open the first indigenous student center.

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

“We need to be visible; that is very important,” says Commanda. “We are people. We are students. We need to be recognized. We need to have a student association like any other student body.”

After Commanda graduated with a Bachelor of Arts and then worked his way through the University of Ottawa’s law school, he dedicated his career to blazing a trail for Indigenous students to succeed. That work continues today: In July, she was named Chancellor of the University of Ottawa, becoming the first indigenous person to hold the position.

With him, he brings the political will, activism, and traditional knowledge that he has carried with him since walking across campus as an undergraduate.

Lessons from their elders

Commanda describes his grandfather William Commanda, a late Algonquian elder and leader, as a man of stillness who “could really move mountains”.

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

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

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

“He always told me: ‘Don’t let anyone pressure you and let no one tell you that this is not your land,’” she recalls.

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

In a story that Commanda tells about her grandfather, she asked for advice on how to attend law school. She brought tobacco and then waited and waited for her response, a lesson in patience.

An hour later, he came back and told her to go to law school to learn Canada’s legal language 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 educated Indian,” he remembers his grandfather saying.

These were instrumental teachings that helped Commanda play a leadership role on campus as a student, as an attorney and law professor, as a band counselor to 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 passed on knowledge of spiritual and terrestrial medicines. From him she learned the importance of love, healing and spirituality.

“He taught me the spiritual path, while my grandfather William 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 chance to welcome the university into a circle.

“It means that you will sit with me, listen to me and I will teach you,” says Commanda. “And then you come out with a renewed understanding of who First Nations people are.”

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

During that time, Quaid was undergoing chemotherapy for breast cancer and kept her camera off during virtual board meetings because her hair had fallen out.

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

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

Nearly a year later, Quaid attended an opening ceremony that included spotting and a ceremonial fire. Commanda saw Quaid and pulled her into the inner circle to heal her.

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

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

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

“I want to welcome you to the Algonquian Territory. I want to welcome you to my space as chancellor. I want to welcome you to my world of knowledge.”

Matteo Cimellaro / Local Journalism Initiative / Canadian National Observer

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