Chief William Commanda’s legacy
People & Places

Chief William Commanda’s legacy

As Ottawa residents, we have become well acquainted with the sight of the abandoned rail bridge that crosses the Ottawa River just west of downtown. Some of us have even broken the rules and ventured onto its rusty back to enjoy the enigmatic perspective it offers, while others have lost their lives jumping from it into the fast-moving current below. 

The 140-year-old bridge is a living memory of Ottawa’s history. Built shortly after Canada’s confederation to facilitate rail transit between Ontario and Quebec, the bridge lost its purpose as more efficient transit lines were built, and it saw its final train pass in the early 2000s, around the same time it was purchased by the city of Ottawa. Originally named after Edward VII, Prince of Wales at the time, the name acted as a reminder of Canada’s colonial history with its connection to the English monarchy, as many sites in Canada do. However, as of July 2021, the bridge has a new name and a new purpose. The former Prince of Wales Bridge is now the Chief William Commanda Bridge, with a $22.5 million budget to repurpose the structure into a pedestrian pathway. 

Photography by Jason Fournier

The renaming honours the late Ogima Ojigkwanong (Chief William Commanda), who was chief of Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg between 1951 and 1970. His namesake is a fitting one, given the importance of the Ottawa River and its watershed to the Algonquin Nation. Although the city of Ottawa sits atop unceded and unsurrendered Algonquin land, the city has historically lacked any significant Algonquin representation in its names and symbols. The decision to rename the bridge was a welcome gesture, supported by the attendance of the Algonquin Anishinabeg Nation Grand Chief John Boudrias, who passed away in September, and current Kitigan Zibi Chief Dylan Whiteduck. 

Beyond his role as chief, Commanda left behind a legacy as a recognized leader, knowledge keeper, spiritual leader, and an Order of Canada recipient. Not only was he a master canoe builder, Commanda was the holder of a wampum belt, which is a visual representation of treaties that are sacred to Indigenous nations. In his later years, Chief Commanda was the spiritual leader of the Circle of Nations, a movement dedicated to peace-building, social justice, and environmentalism that was guided by Indigenous values. Commanda’s projects saw him working alongside the Dalai Lama, Pierre Elliot Trudeau, and Nelson Mandela. His brilliance and his dedication to land and culture, as well as interracial and spiritual unity, have left a lasting impression. Ottawa should be proud to have a new space that recognizes not only the original peoples of this land but also one of its own.