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Institute of Canadian and Aboriginal Studies named after late William Commanda

Photo: Stephen Gagné 

The University of Ottawa has named one of its arts buildings to honour the memory of an influential Algonquin spiritual leader, and to acknowledge the university’s gratitude to First Nations peoples.

Tucked between Perez Hall and the Department of Visual Arts, the Institute of Canadian and Aboriginal Studies has been officially renamed William Commanda Hall in honour of the Algonquin elder and supreme chief of the North American Indian Nations Government.

“Naming a hall in honour of someone is not something to be undertaken lightly,” said university president Allan Rock at the opening ceremony, according to the uOttawa Gazette.

“By naming the building … in honour of William Commanda, the University of Ottawa reaffirms its commitment to disseminating the Aboriginal knowledge, history, and cultures on which our country is founded.”

Commanda was born in 1913 in Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg, Que. His mother named him Ojigkwanong, meaning “Morning Star.” His life is reminiscent of a different Canada, where as a youth Commanda hid in the woods to avoid being placed in a residential school.

Commanda later became the chief of Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg from 1951 to 1970, and founded the Circle of All Nations in 1969. Romola Vasantha, the current coordinator of the Circle of All Nations, describes the group as “a global eco-community,” a peace-building initiative that unites people of all backgrounds.

Commanda, who was also known simply as Grandfather, was an expert carver who made birch canoes for Expo ‘67 in Montreal to commemorate Canada’s 100th birthday.

“He had a great philosophy with regards to learning from each other and living in peace and harmony,” said Antoni Lew Kowicz, the U of O’s dean of arts.

Kowicz said students were the driving force behind the renaming of 52 University Private. The U of O was built on Algonquin ancestral land, and the students “wanted to see the presence of an Algonquin name on campus associated with a building, recognizing that this is Algonquin traditional territory,” he said.

Commanda received an honorary doctorate degree from the U of O in 2005.

Vasantha remembers driving a sickly Commanda to the ceremony, doubting whether it was a good idea.

“He did go,” she said, “and as people … were increasingly interested in his story, he became increasingly animated.” It contributed to healing him, said Vasantha.

Commanda passed away six years later at age 97.