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Algonquin women leaders address CPJ annual general meeting

By Deborah Gyapong
Canadian Catholic News

06/08/2016

OTTAWA (CCN) — Two Algonquin women stressed the importance of forging a path of reconciliation with First Nations people in the lead at the annual general meeting of Citizens for Public Justice June 2.

Claudette Commanda, a member of the Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg First Nation near Maniwaki, Que., and former University of Ottawa law professor, said she was taught from childhood about her future responsibility to the nation, a responsibility that includes care of the land and the water.

Now executive director of the First Nations Confederacy of Cultural Education Centres, Commanda reminded people the conference was taking place on unceded, unsurrendered, non-treaty lands of the Algonquin people. Part of what she was taught, she said, was to “continue to continue the responsibility of our grandparents, to always ensure the welcome of people into our territories, but also to educate people and to tell our stories.”

“I welcome you with open arms,” she said.

Her grandfather, Chief William Commanda, served during a time when First Nations people were “not allowed to be seen in public,” but were instead “ruled by the iron hand of the Indian Agent and the missionary.”
“My grandparents stood strong against that oppression,” she said, though at the same time “welcoming people and educating people about our history.”

No matter how dark that history is, “we have to learn about our history to make sure that history is never repeated,” she said. “Canada is on a path of reconciliation. Only together will reconciliation be a success.”
“The time is now to build a better country,” she said. “We must do so for our children.”

Though First Nations are diverse in culture and language, they are “all connected to the land,” she said. “Our laws must be included in the action of reconciliation,” in a “nation to nation relationship.”

Regardless of race or creed, we all share Mother Earth and we are all human beings, she said. “The Creator made us who we are in each of our cultures, races and differences.” Those differences are to be respected and celebrated. “Each of you is found on our medicine wheel,” she said. “Our prophecies told us about change that would come to our land.”

Those prophecies spoke of hardship, “but also about the strength of our people and of a time even harder than that of our grandparents,” she said.

“The time of the Indian Agent and the missionary are over,” she said.

Verna McGregor, also of the Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg First Nation, who works at the Miniwaashin Lodge — the Aboriginal Women’s Support Centre in Ottawa — told how her mother fought to bring back the Algonquin language to their community.

“We need to retain our language because it is connected to the land,” her mother would say, McGregor said.

She told how she had gone to Ottawa to go to school and eventually went on to university. Upon graduation, she worked briefly at Indian and Northern Affairs. “Gee whiz, the people are so miserable,” she said of her time there.

A friend invited her to sell real estate. “I come from the reserve. What do I know about real estate?” she said. On the reserve, you “go put your name forward at the band office and you pray, and you pray.”

“Here you put in an offer and you get a mortgage!” she said. She sold real estate for a while, and then she met a banker. “What do I know about banking? We’d been left out of this whole financial system,” she said.

There was a time when an indigenous person could not get a bank account or hire a lawyer. When a position opened up at the Assembly of First Nations she told herself, “I know real estate; I know banking,” so she took a job in economic development.

Ovide Mercredi was national chief then. “He would say ‘We are all in need of big healing.”

“I’d say, ‘Let’s have economic development,’” McGregor said.

She soon saw the conflict, however, between economic development, such as big mining, that could leave the land and the water poisoned. Then the testimonies started coming out about the Indian residential schools.

“I didn’t know what trauma issues were; I didn’t know why there were so many issues in our communities,” she said. “When I heard the stories I began to understand.”

When she had a child, McGregor decided she was travelling too much and returned to her community to serve as an economic development officer. “I wanted to bring back our traditional industry, making maple syrup.”

Though climate change is a present-day threat to the maple syrup production, McGregor began to see how the residential schools had negatively impacted the traditional industry by taking children away, keeping them from the labour intensive work during the sugaring season in the early spring, and depriving them of exposure to the sacred ceremonies around it.

Commanda and McGregor replaced scheduled keynote speaker Senator Murray Sinclair, the former chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, who was unable to attend because of the assisted suicide debate in the Senate.

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