Pikwakanaganan – This past weekend, the main bridge connecting the hamlet of Golden Lake to the Pikwakanagan Reserve was a sea of orange as members of the Commanda family and about 20 volunteers, all wearing orange shirts, handed out orange ribbons and collected donations to help pay for a weekend walk in honour of 13-year-old Joey Commanda.
In the mid-1960s, Joey and his brother, Rocky were two young boys suddenly removed from their Pikwakanagan home and placed in the Mohawk Institute in Brantford (referred to by survivors as "Mushhole" for its unique brand of watery porridge). Also described by survivors as one of the worst residential schools, the brothers, along with several other children, endured harsh beatings at the hands of the administrators.
By the age of 13 he and his brother had enough of the school and ran away to get home. Soon after the boys separated to avoid being picked up by police, Joey was killed when he was struck by an eastbound train in Oakville on September 3, 1968. The official police report listed him as trespassing and his brother, Rocky, was apprehended by police and spent time in a Toronto jail cell.
The idea for the three-day memorial walk from Brantford to Oakville (August 27-29) and the fundraiser was started by Loretta (Commanda) Nadeau, one of seven of Joey Commanda’s siblings who came together on the shores of Golden Lake to raise money for the walk.
Mrs. Nadeau, affectionately known to all as Budgie, who was born in Pikwakanagan but now resides in Orangeville. She said the walk was something she had always wanted to do, but the recent discovery of a mass grave containing the bodies of 215 children who attended a residential school in British Columbia spurred her into action.
“It is one of those things I had always thought about in order to raise awareness, but when they discovered those bodies of the children I was shocked at first, and then I became angry,” she said. “I had intended to walk even if it was just by myself. But now with everything going on and more and more people are also angry and outraged because there are likely more unmarked graves out there, I figured now is the time to do it.
“The families and friends of missing children who never came back from a residential school want closure and I think this walk in honour of Joey will help a lot of our community in the healing process and finally bring closure for some of us.”
Mrs. Nadeau and her husband will drive from the former Mohawk Institute (now known as the Woodland Cultural Centre) in Brantford to Toronto in order to map out a safe route. She estimates the walk will take approximately 20 to 24 hours to complete and she anticipates many of those who want to participate may be residential school survivors with the majority of them being seniors.
“What we would really like to do is charter some buses for those who want to be part of the walk, but are elderly or just can’t physically walk that far,” she said. “A lot of it depends on COVID because right now the companies are not allowed to rent out buses so we may have to get a bunch of other vehicles to transport them between the sites.”
She is hopeful the symbolic walk will continue with a convoy of vehicles making their way from Toronto to the bridge leading into Pikwakanagan on Sunday, August 29.
“We are going to start with a pipe ceremony in Brantford and make our way to Toronto,” she said. “After the 20-hour walk, I am hoping to have a convoy go on to Pikwakanagan and meet at the bridge. From there we would walk up to the graveyard where Joey is buried and properly honour and remember our brother who never had the chance to walk across the bridge to come home to his family.”
She said having so many members of her immediate and extended family offering to help with the fundraiser is a true testament to the memory of her brother and she hopes the event will help open the doors for other survivors to be able to talk about their experiences and know there is a community of people from all walks of life willing to listen and help.
“I know from my own experience we never really had a chance to properly say goodbye to Joey,” she said. “Up until recently my brother, Rocky never talked about his time at Brantford and his experiences there have haunted him all his life. But now he is talking a little bit about his time there and when he is ready he will maybe open up a bit more. None of us are pushing him to talk and if he wants to share more, he will when he is ready and all of us understand and respect that.”
When the siblings gathered for a photo, they wore orange shirts that have become a national symbol to honour and remember all the children, including those who never returned to their homes, who attended a residential school.
Jacqueline (Commanda) Sarazin not only donned an orange shirt, but her shirt included a large photo of her late brother, Joey on the front to go along with a small button with his photo on it. The shirts and buttons will be available for sale shortly and will help to fund the August walk.
“This is just one small way to remember Joey and maybe it will help others who find themselves in the same boat as our family,” she said.
When Rocky reluctantly put his shirt on, the back of the shirt simply read ‘Residential School Survivor.’ When he was told about the printing on the back, he at first appeared confused.
However, after only a few seconds, he said “it may say survivor, but I am a proud Algonquin of Pikwakanagan and that will never change.”
The Commanda children gathered for a photo and as they did, they had a view of the bridge where volunteers collected money for the August walk amid hundreds of orange ribbons wrapped around the rails of the bridge from one end to the other.
Bruce McIntyre, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eganville Leader