Romola’s Speaking Notes on the Occasion of the Presentation of the Inaugural University of Ottawa Aboriginal Legal Services Justice Award to Elder William Commanda by the Honourable James K. Bartleman, Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, November 14, 2002
I felt truly privileged when Celeste McKay and the organizing team asked me to say a few words on the impact Elder William Commanda has had on my life.
In one descriptive word - he has impacted profoundly!
I left the old South African world of racism and injustice and came to Canada in 1970 – and for over twenty five years worked in the Canadian criminal justice system, across the country, and in many areas - half way houses, maximum and minimum security prisons, parole, security, programs and policy and I worked for over fifteen years in Aboriginal corrections, policing and justice.
But after I met Elder William Commanda I began to understand what justice was really all about – and so I quit my secure job with the federal government and now I work for him. The hours are pretty tough, since he never ceases to work, but the benefits incredible!
I feel now that my criminal justice system years were my apprenticeship for my real job as the elder’s secretary and receptionist and policy advisor and writer and driver and bodyguard and sometimes hit man! Also, he likes taking me to his meetings as his political message – I am the real Indian, not him.
Three key thoughts come to my mind when I think of Elder Commanda’s work in justice. Over thirty years ago, he once said to Pierre Trudeau, as they "parled au francaises’ - you know you spell that word justice wrong. No, no, Mr. Truduea replied – that is how we spell it in English – j u s t i c e . Oh, I thought it was j u s t u s, replied William Commanda.
Now countless lawyers and Aboriginal justice advocates have used that phrase since, but few have been able to transform it into a vision of inclusion. William Commanda has, in his Circle of All Nations. Each year he hosts an international gathering at his home, at his own expense and assisted by his incredible team of volunteers, many of whom are the criminal jsutice system’s offenders and parolees.
He takes his healing work into the prisons and the National Film Board documentary Ojikwanong focuses on the impact of his work on the inmates. One of these men was Inuit, and could barely understand English when we first met him at La Macaza. The next year, after the documentary was filmed, he came to the Elder’s gathering as a part of a corrections work program and helped to build a lodge. The following year he came alone, still somewhat isolated by language barriers – but I noticed he volunteered to clean the toilets. Only then did I realize how profoundly he had been affected by the Elder – and how much he felt a part of the Circle of All Nations, and how much he wanted to contribute to the effort.
Elder Commanda just turned 89 – he was born on 11 November – Remembrance Day – on the eve of the first world war – his mother named him Morning Star – Ojigkwanong - to many of us a symbol of light emerging out of darkness. He was born to remember the past of his ancestors, in with a singularly unique political and spiritual stance, as well as to forge a path into the future.
He continues to work tirelessly to bring his vision for a Circle of All Nations – a Culture of Peace forward to a new level – in his vision for the establishment of a healing and peace building centre on Victoria Island – a center where indigenous peoples can reclaim their heritage and heal and unify and then share their wisdom and ideology of inclusion and justice and harmony with the rest of the world. And as we stand on the brink of possibly the third world war, his vision is sorely needed by us all.
It is no small honour to be supporting Elder Commanda in his work.