‘It is time to stand together in friendship’

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First Nations Professor Claudette Commanda holds an eagle feather as she speaks to CPJ gathering. Photo: Art Babych
First Nations Professor Claudette Commanda holds an eagle feather as she speaks to CPJ gathering. Photo: Art Babych

A First Nations university professor struck a passionate chord in a speech at the annual general meeting of Citizens for Public Justice (CPJ) in Ottawa June 3, noting, “The days of the Indian agent and the missionary are over.”

“It is time now for people to come together, respect one another’s voice, stand together in friendship,” said Claudette Commanda, who teaches courses on First Nations issues at the University of Ottawa and is a granddaughter of William Commanda, a renowned Algonquin elder and spiritual leader. “It is time now for the formerly silenced people to be heard and it is time now to let First Nations people lead,” she said.

Commanda was asked to speak at CPJ’s annual general meeting in place of Senator Murray Sinclair, chair of the Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He was unable to attend, as Will Postma, chair of the CPJ board told the crowd, “because of the need for senators to stay in the chamber and continue debating and discussing [Bill C-14, the assisted dying bill].” Sinclair was to speak on how reconciliation can reduce poverty among Indigenous peoples in Canada.

Commanda, who is also executive director of a national organization mandated to protect First Nations culture, languages and education, pointed out that Ottawa is part of the ancestral territories of the Algonquin people. “And if we are going to embark on the process of reconciliation, it is important that only the voices of the Algonquin people shall be heard and [be] giving direction of what shall become of our land and our territories,” she said. “I appreciate people standing up and helping us, but please do not do that without asking us what it is that we want from our land, what it is that we want here in this territory.” Commanda added, “Only we have the right to speak.”

The Inuit people and Métis people “have their own stories and their own voices as well, and I respect that in the same way that I respect all of your voices,” she said.

“We’ve been very loving and giving for the last 523 years, and we will continue to be very loving and giving forever more because we’re all in this together now as citizens,” she said. “And we’re all going to make Canada a better country, not only for us but, remember, for our grandchildren and our great-grandchildren and the many descendants that are not here yet.”

A mother of four children and a grandmother of nine, Commanda said it was difficult for her to come and speak at the CPJ event because of the recent death of her mother. “I have a very heavy heart, a very heavy spirit,” she said, her voice breaking. “I’m in a time of grieving.”

Verna McGregor, an employment counsellor at Minwaashin Lodge – Aboriginal Women’s Support Centre, spoke briefly and sang an “honour song” she had intended to sing for Sinclair.

Many of those attending the meeting arrived moments before the keynote address by Sinclair was scheduled to begin, and some expressed disappointment he was unable to attend.

At its business meeting, CPJ approved a budget for 2016 of $764,264. It expects a deficit of $56,048. The proposed deficit in part allows for a loss of a $90,000 grant that expired.

The actual budget for 2015 was $875,465 with a surplus of $148,835. More than expected individual donations—including one for $50,000—along with under-budget expenses made it a good year for the organization.

CPJ is “a go-to agency…a faith-based and faith-inspired advocate for public justice,” board chair Postma told the gathering. “We respond to God’s call for love and justice in this world. We seek the integrity of creation. We seek human flourishing.”

CPJ is a national justice organization and an affiliate member of the Canadian Council of Churches, of which the Anglican Church of Canada is a member.

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Art is the former editor of Crosstalk, the newspaper of the Anglican diocese of Ottawa.

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