Pikwakanagan – Doug George-Kanentiio is an Akwesasne Mohawk and current vice-president of the Hiawatha Institute for Indigenous Knowledge. He was also a classmate of Joey Commanda while attending the Mohawk Institution residential school in Brantford in 1967-68.
When he met Joey and Rocky Commanda in 1967, he not only offered friendship to the two outsiders, but he and other Mohawk boys also protected the two Algonquin boys from some of the older boys who made a habit of bullying new and younger students.
“I remember it was September 1967 and out of the blue Joey and Rocky came up to us and greeted us and that started a lifelong relationship with the Commanda boys,” Mr. George said. “We became friends and all of us Mohawks offered the boys our protection and if anyone had an issue or wanted to ‘talk’ to the Commanda boys, they had to come through us.”
Like most residential school survivors, Mr. George has very few positive things to say about his childhood education, but one thing that sticks out in his mind is the friendships he developed while attending the Mohawk Institute.
“Of all the boys who went to school with me, it will be impossible to ever forget Joey Commanda,” he said. “Not just because of the tragic way he died, but the fact he and his brother made it all the way to Toronto before he was killed and Rocky was caught. Two boys who had never been here before ran away to get home to their families, something we did repeatedly but we also lived a lot closer than they did.
“In the year that we were together, we were able to offer Joey and Rocky protection from the other boys who wanted to hurt them,” he said. “But in 1968 we got expelled and we could not protect them anymore and maybe that was part of the reason they ran away.”
He said when he and the other boys were put on a train by school administrators, four words said to them that day almost 53 years ago, have stuck with him.
“Don’t ever come back,” he said with a big smile. “Believe me that was the last place we ever wanted to go back to but we were also worried about our friends who were all alone again inside that horrible place.”
He said the boys realized they were all alone and not only had to deal with the various abuses inflicted by those who ran the school, but they had to deal with all the older Six Nations boys who routinely beat up kids who were not part of their tribe.
“So they ran and they tried to get back home and Joey never made it and he died alone just trying to get back to his family.”
After being contacted by Mrs. Nadeau about the walk, they jumped at the chance to be part of the historic trek. They wanted to be part of the final send-off for their young friend who died at such a young age.
“Our part of the journey is now complete,” Mr. George said. “We continued to protect our friend as his family brought his spirit home. We will meet our young friend again one day and all we will talk about are the happy memories.”
Bruce McIntyre, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eganville Leader