Pikwakanagan – “Today our community has brought Joey Commanda home and although it was a long journey, it was a journey filled with tears, laughter and it brought peace to Joey’s soul and it has brought peace and a sense of closure to all of our family.”
Loretta “Budgie” Nadeau fought back tears when she delivered this message to a crowd that looked like a sea of orange Sunday afternoon. She is one of the sisters of the deceased and the driving force behind a walk from the former Mohawk Institute in Brantford to the bridge connecting Pikwakanagan in Golden Lake.
As she addressed a crowd of more than 200 family members, friends, and supporters who gathered in the Algonquins of Pikwakanagan original cemetery to send the spirit of their brother on to his next journey, she told them of her immense pride in all those who either participated or helped organize the three-day event.
Ms. Nadeau, an Algonquin originally from the Pikwakanagan First Nation who now resides near Orangeville, said she organized the walk to raise awareness and bring a measure of healing to families.
Her brothers, Joey and Rocky Commanda, were removed from their home in Golden Lake in the mid-1960s and placed at the Mohawk Institute, which first opened in 1828 and was the longest-operating residential school in the country when it closed in 1970. More than 15,000 children, most of them from Six Nations of the Grand River, were forced to attend.
She said her brothers ran away twice from the Mush Hole – the name given to the residential school by its students in reference to the food they were served – in an effort to return home.
The boys split up on their second attempt. On September 13, 1968, Joey, 13, was struck and killed by a train in Oakville while Rocky, a year older, was apprehended by police and put in a Toronto jail.
“For our family, and the community of Pikwakanagan, Joey never really came back home,” she said. “But today, our brother is finally home.”
Friday morning a ceremonial prayer was held in front of the school, a building that has been transformed into a museum and is now a reminder of the flawed residential school system -- a system that forcibly removed children from their families and placed them in a network of religious run and government supported schools that operated for more than 100 years.
When Joey’s body was discovered and declared “deceased,” the police force investigating the incident listed him as trespassing. It was a far different reception by local police forces over the weekend who provided escorts for the Commanda family and some officers went to great efforts to assist in the safe passage of the convoy.
The first leg of the walk ended last Friday night in Oakville. The trek continued to Toronto on Saturday, followed by a five-hour vehicle convoy on Sunday to the Golden Lake Post Office.
With the assistance of members of Pikwakanagan Fire and Rescue, the walkers, in a sea of orange shirts, crossed Highway 60 and walked along Kokomish Road crossing the bridge linking Golden Lake and Pikwakanagan.
One of those taking part in the walk was Pikwakanagan Chief Wendy Jocko.
“This is not only a historic day for our community, but it is an example of how a community can come together to help their fellow members and highlight the issues of the residential schools,” she said. “As both a member and Chief of Pikwakangan, I am so proud of everyone who has taken part in this walk and it really shows how loving and caring our community truly is.”
About 100 walkers crossed over the bridge to the cheers of many supporters who also wanted to honour the 13-year-old boy. The group, many of them aged 60 years or more and showing signs of exhaustion, continued along their way to the cemetery.
The group made their way to the cemetery to the sounds of Brian Sarazin playing a lone drum at the entrance, welcoming all those who helped bring Joey home.
Greg Sarazin, a resident of Pikwakanagan and nephew of Joey, carried the sacred staff with an eagle on top and led the crowd to the newly-created tombstone. The front of the tombstone bore Joey’s full name, a photo, his dates of birth and death, and the inscription Every Child Matters. The back of the tombstone had a dedication written by family member Christine Commanda entitled In Remembrance of Joe. Her moving note written to the young boy ends:
They say you have died, Joe.
That you are gone from us,
We will always pray though.
And hope they are wrong.
Along with Joey’s death, unmarked graves unearthed at some schools have revealed the hundreds, and it may be thousands, of Native children who mysteriously disappeared or were documented as dying while in attendance at the schools. According to other Pikwakanagan members who were also forcibly removed from their homes in order to attend a residential school, it appears that Joey was the only residential school student not return home.
One surprising revelation made on Sunday was the introduction of four Mohawk members who not only took part in the walk, but were also school mates of the Commanda boys and that friendship spared the Pikwakanagan children a lot of potential grief.
“We had one of our seniors contact Joey in the spirit world and they said Joey was in good hands and he would lead all those children yet to be found at the Mohawk Institute,” he said. “Their spirits will be protected and guided by Joey and he said it is okay and that just as we had done, Joey has grown into a fine young man and he will bring them back to their homes.”
The ceremony ended with Mr. George presenting Ms. Nadeau with the official flag of the Mohawk Nation as a symbol of co-operation between the two federations. Everyone was invited to say a traditional blessing at the base of Joey’s headstone.
As hundreds of visitors left the cemetery for a traditional feast held at the Pow Wow grounds, the last words of Ms. Nadeau still rang in their ears.
“We did it…and we made it and we did it for Joey,” she said to the crowd with many of them cheering and chanting, while along the front of Joey Commanda’s headstone, the flag and staff bearers raised their arms and pointed up to the sky to send a welcome home message to the young boy who was remembered on this day.
Bruce McIntyre, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eganville Leader