FINAL REPORT: ALGONQUIN ELDERS’ GATHERING TO DEVELOP A VISION FOR VICTORIA ISLAND March 27 – 28, 2002 Chateau Logue, Maniwaki, Quebec
Victoria Island has been the traditional spiritual meeting grounds of the Algonquin peoples for countless centuries. Over the past few decades, Aboriginal peoples have reclaimed their right to bring ceremony and gatherings back to this land, and many individuals and groups, both Algonquin and non Algonquin, have held meetings and sacred ceremonies on the Island, retrenching the indigenous spirit in its soil.
Algonquin Elder William Commanda notes that the Algonquin peoples have been entrusted with the guardianship of the Sacred Seven Fires Prophecy Wampum Belt for a very long time, and he notes that the world finally stands at the cross roads of time when the final message of the Belt is unfolding. It is time for all to make serious choices about our future on Mother Earth and our relationships with each other. The development of a healing and peace building center at Victoria Island is seen as one concrete manifestation of the choices available to us.
Several years ago, Elder Commanda and Firekeeper Peter Decontie approached Algonquin community leaders regarding the building of such a healing centre on Victoria Island; five communities expressed their support in writing (Timiskaming Band Council, Conseil de Bande D’Odanak, Wolf Lake First Nation, Long Point First Nation and Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg). Aboriginal Architect Douglas Cardinal has developed conceptual designs for such a centre. During the past fall, Elder William Commanda and Douglas Cardinal visited many Algonquin communities (Lac Simon, Pikogan/Amos, Timiskaming, Winneway, Long Point and Golden Lake) to seek input on this matter, and were greatly encouraged by the interest in and support for such a vision, expressed by both old and young people. First Nations Confederacy of Cultural Educational Centres (FNCCEC ) Elder Joe Wabie assisted with some of these early community visits. Over a hundred a fifty people have now affirmed this support in writing. The Algonquin Anishinabeg Nation (Abitibiwinni, Eagle Village, Kitcisakik, Kitigan Zibi, Lac Simon and Long Point) passed a resolution endorsing the initiative in November 2001.
It is understood that support for such an initiative is also strengthening at various levels of government. In addition, Elder Commanda’s extensive personal network of friends and colleagues both national and international are very much interested in this vision.
Elder William Commanda was afforded the opportunity to do some work on indigenous issues. He determined that the time was ripe to debate, develop and advance this vision, consistent with views of the Elders and peoples of the territory and the sacred prophecy. He believed it was essential for the seed of the vision to take its roots first amongst the people of the land. Hence a meeting was organized under his initiative to bring together Algonquin elders and community representatives involved in healing work to afford them an opportunity to explore options collectively, and build a foundation for further development and expansion.
Under the auspices of the First Nations Confederacy of Cultural and Educational Centres (FNCCEC), Elder William Commanda, Circle of All Nations, initiated, organized, facilitated and oversaw a two day gathering of Algonquin elders and community representatives involved in healing work, including several youth.
Invitations were sent to all the Algonquin communities in Quebec and Ontario, primarily through the offices of the Chiefs; community leadership were informed of the scope of the Gathering. The Algonquin Anishnabeg Nation, through the Tribal Council office in Maniwaki, assisted in the process of registration.
The Gathering was held in Maniwaki, Quebec, at the Chateau Logue, the site of ancient burial grounds of the Algonquin peoples of the region. In a significant symbolic manner, the voices and spirits of the ancestors joined the current generations in the exploration of the purpose and future of the traditional meeting grounds of the Algonquin peoples at Victoria Island on the great Ottawa River. The timing of the meeting for March 27 and 28 was also auspicious, coming after the Spring Solstice, at the time of the Full Moon, and even just before Easter, a time of renewal and rebirth.
Approximately a hundred people from all the Algonquin communities in Quebec participated in the meeting (that is, Abitibiwinni, Eagle Village, Kitsisakik, Kitigan Zibi, Lac Simon, Long Point, Rapid Lake/Barrier Lake and Timiscaming). The two Algonquin communities in Ontario, Golden Lake and Wahgoshig had anticipated participation, but a winter storm precluded attendance.
For most participants, the morning of March 27 and the afternoon of March 28 served as travel time.
Participants were presented with a report on the Victoria Island initiative, a brochure on Elder Commanda’s Circle of All Nations – Culture of Peace work, a Circle of All Nations tee shirt, and a wooden paddle created by Tommy Dewache, dressed with a tobacco tie, a symbol of the nomadic Algonquin people continuing the journey and prayer through life.
Elder Commanda opened the Gathering with a traditional smudge ceremony and an opening prayer. At the same time, Kitigan Zibi Fire Keeper, Peter Decontie, lit a sacred fire at Elder Commanda’s lodge at his home on the reserve, which he kept burning steadily till the Gathering concluded the following day.
Gilbert Whiteduck, Band Counsellor with the Kitigan Zibi First Nations, and President of the FNCCEC, offered words of welcome to the community. Thereafter, the overall context and objectives for the Gathering were set out.
Next Aboriginal Architect Douglas Cardinal provided a slide presentation on his background and work, outlined his appointment by the National Capital Commission to develop a design concept for Victoria Island, and described his preliminary plans for a healing centre.
He explained the spiritual preparation (traditional sweat ceremonies) he engaged in to find the proper vision for a building to adequately and appropriately house the culture, heritage and history of the Algonquin peoples and the land, honour Mother Earth and the sacred directions, elements and seasons, and serve as a place conducive to both the healing of individuals, families and communities, as well as peace building between nations. The paradoxical image of the intimacy and expansiveness of the design sets a tone for a place of refuge for both personal healing which so many Aboriginal peoples express a dire need of, and a site for global peace building, which the whole world is obviously in desperate need of.
While the actual programs for such a setting are yet to be identified and developed comprehensively, these preliminary ideas for Victoria Island seem eminently suitable for this spiritual meeting place of the Algonquin peoples, traditionally a peaceful people, within the nation’s capital region of Canada, and in one of the few countries in the world without a history of having been ravaged by war.
Participants engaged in a question and answer and commentary session, before breaking for a communal dinner.
In the evening, Elder William Commanda conducted a sacred Pipe Ceremony at the Lodge at his home on the Kitigan Zibi Reserve. Several Pipe Carriers were involved, and participants offered many moving testimonies of the desperate need for individual and community healing in a healing session that went well into midnight.
Following a group buffet breakfast the next morning, Elder Commanda made a presentation on the three sacred Wampum Belts that he has carried for the people over the past thirty years.
The Sacred Wampum Belts
Three wampum belts guide the work of Elder Commanda, and have contributed to his vision for Victoria Island.
The Seven Fires Prophecy Belt
Elder Commanda is believed to be the keeper of this ancient sacred belt at the time of the unfolding of its final message – the message of CHOICE - about our relationships with each other and with all the creations of Mother Earth. Will we be guided by values of sharing, balance and harmonious co-existence? Elder Commanda asks.
He noted that the Algonquin peoples have been entrusted with the sacred wampum belt of the Seven Fires Prophecy for a long, long time, and that we all we now stand the cross roads of time when the final message of the Belt is unfolding.
"Maybe our ancestral spirits knew we would need to bring this message before the whole world. Maybe this is why our world is now called the global village. And maybe this is why, after five hundred years of silence, the voice of the indigenous peoples is rising again. Mother Earth is telling us, the indigenous peoples who were given the sacred responsibility as her caretakers, that it is time for us to resume our duty to uphold the sacredness of all life. We have been silent too long. Wait much longer; and it will be too late.
It is now time for us all to take a big step forward to advance a vision for healing and peace consistent with the message of the Seven Fires Prophecy.
The vision can take concrete form as we work together to establish a lodge dedicated to personal and interpersonal healing and peace building for all nations, at Victoria Island, and support the land as it reclaims its heritage as the traditional spiritual meeting grounds of the Anicinabe peoples."
This in essence was the message shared by Elder Commanda.
He also shared his teachings about the two other wampum shell belts:
The 1700s Peace Belt
In this three figure belt about equitable SHARING, William Commanda’s ancestors commemorated their understanding about sharing the resources of their native land with the newcomers, the French and the English, in the spirit of a confederacy, in sacred wampum shell. The inherent value of sharing remains the elusive quest of our times.
The Jay Treaty Border Crossing Belt
This belt underscores the fundamental spiritual message of indigenous peoples about BORDERLESSNESS: the Elder’s people, the Mamuwinini, the nomads, belong to North America, and as such they retain a sacred connection and responsibility to the land they are born to. As Elder Commanda puts it, "My territory is as the river flows, as the bird flies and as the wind blows."
The overwhelming sentiment was strong support and interest in the vision for Victoria Island. The following is a synopsis of the comments, observations and hopes expressed by the Algonquin Elders:
It is eminently apparent from this itemization of the comments offered during the discussion period that there was an overwhelming outpouring of support, interest, enthusiasm and hope for the Victoria Island Healing Centre vision.
In addition to the positive comments, participants also signed a petition in support of the vision.
The March 27/28 2002 Gathering was very well attended, and support for the develoment of a healing and peace building centre at Victoria Island was very strong and enthusiastic.
Preliminary ideas for the focus of such a centre include individual and community healing, spirituality, healing of Mother Earth and environment and sustainable development issues, substance abuse treatment, language retention, arts and crafts, cultural revival and retention, indigenous education, youth empowerment, healing programs for offenders, anti-racism, nation to nation peace building; that is, programs and processes that can lead to individual and group healing, development and peace.
Further work must now be undertaken to advance this vision; the urgency of the need cannot be stressed strongly enough.
There is strong hope that this vision will take material form prior to the conclusion of the International Decade for Indigenous Peoples in 2004. Great collective energy and commitment is now needed to advance this great work.