Family retraces route of 13-year-old who died fleeing residential school

·3 min read
About 80 people took part in the walk from Brantford to Toronto, to remember Joe Commanda, a 13-year-old who died after fleeing from the Mohawk Institute residential school in 1968. (Mark Bochsler/CBC - image credit)
About 80 people took part in the walk from Brantford to Toronto, to remember Joe Commanda, a 13-year-old who died after fleeing from the Mohawk Institute residential school in 1968. (Mark Bochsler/CBC - image credit)

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

Loretta Nadeau walked along Lakeshore Road East Saturday afternoon, striding through heat and humidity with a picture of her brother, Joe Commanda, resting above her heart.

It's a journey Joe first made more than 50 years before, when he and their brother Rocky fled the Mohawk Institute Indian Residential School in Brantford, Ont.

This weekend, Nadeau and about 80 family members, friends and supporters, retraced his footsteps.

"This is a walk for Joe," she explained. "It's a spirit walk. It's to bring his spirit home."

Their walk began with a ceremony at the Woodland Cultural Centre on Friday morning.

Today it houses a museum and offers educational programs, tours and workshops for the public, but it was a residential school, known by those forced to attend as the Mush Hole, back when Joe and Rocky ran away in 1968.

Rocky was apprehended by Ontario Provincial Police in Oakville. Joe, who was 13 at the time, fled. He was later hit and killed by a train in Toronto.

Submitted by the Commanda family
Submitted by the Commanda family

Rocky was taking part in Saturday's walk too, according to Nadeau.

"He doesn't talk too much about this," she said, adding he was trying to walk as much as he could, while using a cane.

"Today he's really trying."

'Hurt and sadness' came up again this summer

Nadeau said she first began planning to follow her brother's path when she was in her 20s. When she started building a family of her own it got put off. Then came the discoveries of unmarked graves on the grounds of former residential schools across Canada.

"It all came up again. All that hurt and sadness," said Nadeau.

She met with her siblings and told them what she was planning to walk the route. "They all go, 'You're not doing that alone, we're all coming along,'" she said.

Their destination was the Roncesvalles pedestrian bridge, which Nadeau said is as close as they can safely get to the site where her brother died. Some of the family members had never been there.

"The first time I went there I just held onto the railings and [was] shaking," said Nadeau. "I think it's going to be emotional."

Mark Bochsler/CBC
Mark Bochsler/CBC

The family planned to tie ribbons to the railings. Some of the funds they raised for the walk will be donated to help search efforts at other former school properties, or go toward counselling for survivors, she added.

Nadeu said she she expected Sunday would be the most difficult day.

"Then we know for sure he's at rest and people can then move on from that."

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools and those who are triggered by these reports.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for residential school survivors and others affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.

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