Future List 2022: Claudette Commanda stands up for Indigenous rights
People & Places

Future List 2022: Claudette Commanda stands up for Indigenous rights

It was 1986 when Claudette Commanda, a 29-year-old mother of four from Kitigan Zibi, Quebec, knocked on the door of an academic advisor she’d been assigned at the University of Ottawa, where she had come to study law. His words were anything but encouraging. He told her that as a mature student with young children, she was not likely to make it through the demanding program. He would not have time to advise her and suggested she give up on law school. 

Stunned, Commanda left the office feeling defeated — but then thought about the loving support she had from her family and community, in particular her grandfather, the late William Commanda, a renowned elder and spokesperson for Indigenous rights. He had singled out Claudette as a leader for a new generation of Algonquin/Anishinaabe people, advising her that she could make a difference with a law degree. “You have something special,” he told her. “Share your knowledge. Stand strong for our rights to our land, our vision, our truth.”

The younger Commanda followed her grandfather’s counsel. “You never, ever give up your culture or your identity,” she remembers him saying. So when she walked away from that advisor’s office, she simply knocked on the door of the advisor in the next office, and boldly asked the man inside, “Can you help me?” Marcel Fortin (now deceased) welcomed her in. That was the beginning of a collegial bond that turned into friendship — a common scenario for Commanda, who would form dozens of strong relationships over three decades at the University of Ottawa, where she received two degrees, taught Indigenous law, culture, and women’s history in numerous departments, founded the university’s first Indigenous student-support centre, and became the first elder-in-residence for Indigenous students in the law faculty. It all culminated earlier this year in her appointment as the first female Indigenous chancellor in the university’s 174-year history. So much for not making it.

Commanda, now 66, credits her family for helping her succeed, especially in the early years, when she “pulled a lot of all-nighters” after her kids went to bed. “Family came first,” she says. But it was for them that she was determined to complete her law degree and fulfill her grandfather’s wish that she make a difference. 

“She didn’t need encouragement,” says historian Peter MacLeod, a professor of Commanda’s. “She was smart, capable, hard-working.” 

Hard work led to a distinguished academic career, and her family flourished, too; now adults, her children include a doctor, a lawyer, a program support officer, and a mental health and education coordinator, all living in the Kitigan Zibi community. There are 10 grandchildren, including Ryder Cote, 22, who is following in his grandmother’s footsteps as an educator and outspoken advocate for Indigenous rights.

Left: Ryder Cote with his grandmother, Claudette Commanda, at a Parliament Hill gathering on July 1, 2021. Right: Portrait by Christian Lalonde

“She’s my rock,” says Cote. “Whenever I have any problems, we’ll talk, and she has the answers.” These days he speaks at events, most recently at a climate change march in Montreal. “She always taught me that in order to move forward together, we have to learn the original teachings, which include protecting the Earth. She will be great in her role as chancellor. She gets along with everyone.”

Commanda’s rare combination of steely strength, warmth, and good humour has inspired her students, colleagues, and members of the community in which she has been an active spokesperson over the years. 

“I could give you the names of 40 people who would say they were inspired by Claudette,” says Kayla Viau, a former student of Commanda’s. The first in her family to attend university, Viau graduated from law school in 2011 and now lives in Cochrane, Ontario, working as a consultant for First Nations organizations engaged in changing health care and child welfare systems for Indigenous people.

Viau attended ceremonies in Ottawa on September 30, Canada’s National Truth and Reconciliation Day, where Commanda gave the elder’s blessings, holding an eagle feather given to her by a Lakota elder 30 years ago, her arm around her granddaughter, 10-year-old Emmi Cote. “It was incredibly moving. She really lives by the Seven Grandfather Teachings, always thinking about the impact of what we do now on the next generations, wanting young people to feel good about themselves, and for everyone to live more harmoniously.”

Commanda sees her role as one of fostering understanding and healing wounds of the past, but also demanding accountability. When former Mayor Jim Watson failed to consult local Algonquin people about a major land deal, and referred to it as an act of reconciliation, she didn’t hold back on her criticism. “Don’t call it reconciliation if it’s strictly just a land purchase,” Commanda said in an interview with CBC Ottawa. “You’re just wrapping this up with a pretty red paper and calling it reconciliation. And it is not.”

For Commanda, making such statements is rooted in a deep understanding of history — and an unwavering reminder to Canadians that her people never surrendered their land or their culture. “I don’t preach hate. I teach truth. It is your history. Learn it, live with it. We have to build this healing together.” 

It’s something colleagues have been happy to do. When law professor Adam Dodek became dean of the faculty in 2018, Commanda was the elder-in-residence at the school. He asked her to take on the role of advisor on reconciliation. “We really connected on a personal level,” says Dodek, noting that as a “white Jewish male from Vancouver,” he had a lot to learn from Commanda about what reconciliation meant for people like him on both a personal and  professional level. They would meet for weekend breakfasts at the Westin Hotel, where the staff knew and loved Commanda. “She’s that rare person who is equally comfortable meeting the  Queen or connecting with people at Tim Hortons.” Dodek describes how their conversations built a connection that has turned into a friendship. “It was a journey of understanding for me. She helped me see the need to prioritize the recruitment of Indigenous students,” he says. 

Dodek also sees the historic significance of her appointment as university chancellor. “There is a direct connection to every single graduating student. She will preside over every convocation ceremony. That the most senior person at the university is an Indigenous woman sends a strong message. She’s an incredibly important role model.”

When she has time to herself, Commanda enjoys her family, including her partner Stewart, and the company of an adopted cat called Mutty. adopted at the insistence of one of her grandchildren, and who has had a number of names but is currently known as Mutty. “When my mother died in 2018, I missed her so much. Animals know. Mutty really helped me get through my grief,” says Commanda.

An avid reader, Commanda says she loves nothing more than taking a trip to browse at the book store, grabbing a Starbucks coffee, and digging into a pile of books, everything from the novel Five Little Indians by Michelle Good, Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens, and, as an antidote to “heavy” themes, The House of Gucci. “I’m absorbing every word.” 

An enthusiastic filmgoer as well, she thoroughly enjoyed The Woman King. The night before her trip out to see it in a theatre (“oh yes – I have to have my popcorn”), she was up until 2 a.m. after introducing Buffy Sainte-Marie during a celebration of the singer and activist at the National Arts Centre. She also led a smudge ceremony for Sainte-Marie and her band beforehand. Commanda calls meeting the icon a highlight of her life. “You have to cry happy tears. She’s a powerhouse. Beautiful, kind, genuine — such an outstanding individual. She has earned every acknowledgment.”

Fitting words for Sainte-Marie, and, many would agree, the woman offering them.