by Edith Cody-Rice 

Master Canoe Builder Chuck Commanda with his birch bark canoes.

Under a large white tent, about 75 people gathered at the reconciliation event hosted by All My Relations and the charity Plenty Canada at Almonte’s St. Paul’s Anglican Church on Saturday.  All My Relations is a group of citizens who  respond to the calls to action outlined by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.  The Commission investigated the legacy of Indian Residential Schools  and issued 94 calls to action.

Plenty Canada, located in Lanark, Ontario, is a non-profit that supports environmental protection and sustainable development and facilitates access to and shares resources with indigenous peoples and other community groups. Saturday’s topic, Reconciliation and the Birch Bark Canoe featured talks by Larry McDermott ,Algonquin Ambassador and knowledge keeper, member of the Bear Clan and Executive Director of Plenty Canada, Plenty Canada intern Shaelyn Wabegijig, Anishnabeg from Timiskaming First Nation, Chuck Commanda, Algonquin anthropologist  and master canoe builder who built the beautiful birch bark canoes on site and Romola Thumbadoo. Mayor Shaun McLaughlin and Michael Mavis of St Paul’s welcomed the a group who spent the day conversing and sharing a  BBQ lunch. The stories told during the day were information packed and often deeply personal.

Chuck Commanda is the grandson of respected Kitigàn-zìbì Anishinàbeg First Nation elder William Commanda who was a spiritual leader, and promoter of environmental stewardship.

Chuck told the Millstone that in his youth, he was so teased about being aboriginal that he wore a long sleeved shirt in summer to prevent his skin from browning. In those days, aboriginal ancestry was not respected by the larger community.  Only later, in adulthood, did he learn about his heritage and begin to apply it to his life.

Holder of an anthropology degree, he has built birch bark canoes all his life using oral knowledge passed down through his family. Now he sees the canoe as the iconic symbol of reconciliation in Canada.

It was in canoes that aboriginal people in the eastern woodlands traveled for centuries and with canoes that Europeans explored North America (known in Ojibway legend as Turtle Island) and thrived commercially in the early days of European settlement. This summer, several groups, including one that he led, have taken multi cultural canoe trips to help individuals from various cultures live together and understand each other.

Chuck Commanda addresses the crowd on The Birch Bark Canoe: Doorway to the Heart of Turtle Island

Shaelyn Wabegijig had a similar youth unfamiliar with her heritage.

Although she  was raised on Rama reserve she knew little of her aboriginal culture until she participated in an Algonquin exchange and discovered Plenty Canada. Although she went to school on reserve, only 2 pages in a secondary school history book were devoted to aboriginal history.

What if that is  the only representation of your own people in your own country?” she said. She is attending Trent University where she is taking indigenous studies and western philosophy. The coop indigenous youth program at Trent allows her to work with Plenty for a credit. . Tapping into a relatively untouched field will provide many opportunities now. Shaelyn has written a report on shared government responsibility for protected areas.

Plenty itself works with Trent University’s Indigenous Environment Studies program and concentrates on youth and the land, emphasizing the principle of sharing. It is part of the international organization Plenty International.

The event was organized by All My Relations organizers Bev Hunt and Susan Adams.