APTN National News
KITIGAN ZIBI, Que. – Algonquin Elder and spiritual leader William Commanda, known by the honourary title of “grandfather,” died in his home early Wednesday morning. He was 97.
Commanda died at about 5 a.m. in his home from kidney failure, according to his long-time aide Romola Thumbadoo.
Commanda was a trapper, guide, master birchbark canoe maker, chief, teacher, Elder and spiritual leader who developed an international following.
He had been home in Kitigan Zibi for about a week from hospital where he was treated for kidney disease, she said.
Thumbadoo said the last few months of Commanda’s life were spent in pain.
“Grandfather has gone through the most tremendously painful few months of his life,” said Thumbadoo, who has been by Commando’s side for the past decade. “It was heart-breaking the amount of pain his 97-year-old body sustained in these last few weeks.”
Thumbadoo said Commanda flirted with death several times over the last few months and he believed he had actually crossed over and come back.
“There were times when grandfather was on the edge of meeting his ancestors and…on a few occasions…he said ‘I came back,’” she said.
Thumbadoo said Commanda’s body will remain on his property in Kitigan Zibi until his burial Friday. He will be buried in the reserve’s cemetery, she said.
Commanda was born on Nov. 11, 1913, and named Ojigkwanong and was the great-grandson of Pakinawatik, a hereditary Algonquin chief from the mid-1800s who led his people to settle in their current territory by Maniwaki, Que.
Commanda was the former chief of Kitigan Zibi and he held the position from 1951 to 1970.
He will most likely be remembered for his role as an Elder and spiritual leader. He rose to international prominence for his efforts to bridge the gap between cultures. His travels took him all over the world, including to the UN.
Tributes began to appear in on his Facebook page Wednesday morning as word spread that Commanda had died. First Nations leaders also offered tributes to Commanda, calling him a man of “wisdom” and “inspiration.”
Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo said Commanda dedicated his life to “building bridges” between peoples and nations.
“We mourn his passing and we know we will not see his like again,” said Atleo, in a statement.
AFN Quebec-Labrador regional Chief Ghislain Picard said Commanda possessed the ability to reveal how traditional First Nations teachings still apply to the modern world.
“He was a firm believer in respect, justice and harmony among people of all nations and he dedicated his life to sharing that message,” said Picard. “He has been a strong presence for so long and he will be greatly missed.”
Anishinabek Nation Grand Council Chief Patrick Madahbee said Commanda was a “gift” from the Algonquin people to all First Nations people.
“(Commanda) was an important figure for all First Nations people,” said Madahbee, in a statement. “It is a sad day when our Elders pass and he will be remembered by many.”
On Commanda’s Facebook page, many thanked him for his teachings while mourning his death.
“It has been a true blessing to feel your energetic and peaceful spirit, grandfather…I thank you for walking with us all and casting love and wisdom so very widely,” wrote Evelyn Abell.
“A great spiritual leader, William Commanda, has passed onto the next world. (Commanda) was a spiritual leader who took me into his world and called me his ‘young Elder.’ My dearest Elder…we will remember and honour you for times and times to come,” wrote Angaangaq Angakkorsuaq, from Greenland.
“Of all of the wonderful people I have met along The Red Road, if they did not learn directly from grandfather William, they were almost all greatly influenced by him,” wrote Adam Caldwell. “He was a model for how I wish to live my life; indeed the leaders of this world should also take note. Here passes a true leader, a true man. His wisdom is needed more than ever.”
Commanda, who once helped former prime minister Pierre Trudeau repair his birchbark canoe, crossed paths with some of the world’s great spiritual and political leaders.
In 1990 he was asked to bless the Human Rights Monument in Ottawa along with the Dalai Lama. He also presented Nelson Mandela with an eagle feather in 1998 on behalf of First Nations people.
Commanda also received numerous awards and honours for his work, including being named as Officer of the Order of Canada, receiving the key to the city of Ottawa along with an honourary doctorate degree from the University of Ottawa and a lifetime achievement award from the National Aboriginal Achievement Awards Foundation.
Commanda was also the holder of three wampum belts, which, for many First Nations, form the foundation for the relationship with the newcomers.