Doug George-Kanentiio

Akwesasne Mohawk

In September of 1968, Mohawk brothers Joey and Rocky Commanda sought to flee the infamous Mohawk residential school known as The Institute. The school was located in Brantford, Ontario, and due to its reputation for ill-treatment of Mohawk children and the overabundance of mush during mealtimes, it was called the “mush hole.”

While the brothers, Joey and Rocky were on the run from the Institute on their way home to Pikwakanagan-Golden Lake, 400 kilometers away — in hopes of reuniting with their family — Joey Commanda was struck by a commuter train and died at 5:14 p.m. on Sept. 3, 1968.

Our Akwesasne group was honored to be included in the Aug. 27-29 Walk for Joe, a 100-kilometer march from the Mohawk Institute in Brantford, Ontario. to the west end of Toronto, close to the place where our friend Joey Commanda died in 1968.

We gathered at the institute on the evening of Aug. 25 and on Aug. 26 to help in the search for graves that hold the remains of many children — child victims who died of disease, neglect and/or violence.

We were accompanied by the Survivors Secretariat at Ohsweken (we will become the Akwesasne chapter) and the staff of the Woodlands Cultural Centre with Makayla Francis of the Native North American Traveling College recording the event.

The walk began with a tobacco-burning and a pipe ceremony. We started off at 8 a.m. but since we could not follow the train tracks used by Rocky and Joey we went through the farmlands parallel to their route.

I noticed the very neat Ontario farms in remarkable contrast to the disarray in the United States. Nothing out of place, well-groomed orchards, clean barns and pastures. I also saw that the Canadian roadsides have very little litter other than the occasional beer can.

During the events, I observed something unique at the otherwise oppressive mush hole: People were actually relaxed and smiling.

We were greeted by Canadian motorists with waves and car horns and people coming to the roadside to express their support. The only hostile comments came from a couple of people living in the wealthy Mississauga Road area.

Considering such hostility, I was pleased that the Commanda family chose that route. The inconvenience we may have caused to motorists and to those of wealth was a reminder that this is our land and they live in areas using our resources and our names.

Not until we reached Burlington late in the evening of Aug. 27 did I realize how massive metropolitan Toronto has become. We walked 50 kilometers that day and another 50 kilometers the next and at every step, someone among our 60 walkers was thinking of those two boys.

The Commanda brothers had made it to Hamilton, Ontario before Rocky was caught and placed in jail. Joey avoided capture and journeyed on, alone, for another 50 kilometers.

Thinking of the brothers, Joey’s lonely trek made our efforts easy by contrast — he did not have water, food or support vehicles as we did.

Despite heavy rain on the evening of Aug. 28, the bravest of the walkers made it to the Ronncevalles Bridge only 100 meters east of the exact location of Joey's death.

At 9 a.m. on Aug. 29, we held a tobacco ritual and tied orange ribbons to the bridge.

Canadian Indigenous Affairs ministers Marc Miller and Carolyn Bennett — two real human beings enveloped by the sorrows of the moment — also joined us without any media distractions. They were both respectful, humble and compassionate toward the walkers and the Commanda family.

We were asked by the family to make one more walk, this time at Pikwakanagan Territory, 150 kilometers northwest of Ottawa, which was the home of the Commanda family.

It seemed almost all of the Algonquins from there were present to welcome us, all wearing orange, as we marched toward the grave of Joey, to mark his power and to release him into the spirit world.

In our 'Walk for Joe' the Algonquin and Mohawk people were unified, supporting each other. We are unified in our love for our children.

It was a great day to experience such support.

Seven of Joey Commanda’s siblings gathered to help with the fundraising efforts to help pay for a Memorial Walk in his honour. From left to right are Jacqueline (Commanda) Sarazin, Cynthia (Commanda) Tennisco, Alex and Rocky Commanda, Joyce (Commanda) Levesque, Loretta “Budgie” (Commanda) Nadeau and Valerie (Commanda) Smith. Missing from the photo are Robert and Jane Commanda and Shelley (Commanda) Belaire (Description provided by Eganville Leader) - Facebook

When asked, we were given the support of Tim Dooley Thompson of the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne and our kin at the Indian Way Kanonsisnohn.

Their generosity and that of community member Chrissy Jacobs enabled us to attend these historic events.

Roberta Hill, who was also confined to the institute, encouraged us to join the Survivors Secretariat and Janis Monture of the Woodlands proved an excellent host while we were at the institute.

When asked why these kinds of events are important, our response is this:

This is who we are, this is what we do.

Nothing for us, without us, and all for Joey.

ICT Phone Logo

This opinion-editorial essay does not necessarily reflect the view of Indian Country Today; voices in our opinion section represent a variety of reader points of view. If you would like to contribute an essay to Indian Country Today, email the opinion editor, Vincent Schilling at opinion@indiancountrytoday.com.

More information about our guidelines here: Submission guidelines.