August Commanda remembered for his skills as a bushman, trapper, fisherman, hunter

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Pikwakanagan – When August Commanda passed away recently, he took with him a vast knowledge and passion for all things related to the land and forests.

He on October 30 at age 89 but his reputation as one of the most skilled bushmen, trapper, hunter and fishermen will long be remembered.

He was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2018 just prior to the passing of his wife, Shirley, but continued to live life to the fullest until May 2021 when doctors noticed some changes. He underwent treatments in July that took their toll on him, but he continued to try and do as much as possible until his passing.

His viewing was held at the Makwa Community Centre at the Algonquins of Pikwakanagan First Nation, and the building was filled to capacity for the funeral mass on November 4.

Mr. Commanda’s granddaughter, Kerry Andrews, had the honour, yet difficult task, of condensing her many years of wonderful memories of her beloved “Pappy” in the eulogy she delivered. She recently shared some of those memories with the Leader.

She said he was a very special part of her life for as long as she could remember and she felt like she was the apple of his eye, as did all his grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

“I always felt that way my whole life. We had a really special relationship he and I.”

Her own parents divorced when she was young and she felt her grandparents were a constant for her and her younger brother, Cory Belaire.

“We spent a lot of weekends there and there was just that bond. He just adored every new baby that came along, and I think every one of his grandchildren would say he took the time to make them feel special.”

Mr. Commanda’s given name was Anthony, yet he always went by and was known as August, something Mrs. Andrew’s said he had no explanation for.

“We asked him and he’d say, ‘I don’t have a damn clue’,” she said smiling.

Love Reunited

His relationship with his late wife Shirley is an amazing story, Mrs. Andrews noted, sharing she was a survivor of the residential school system who returned to the community at age 18.

“She didn’t know anybody and my Grandpa was one of the first ones she met. They ended up together and had a daughter.

“My grandmother was very young and so was he, so they ended up placing her for adoption,” she added.

The couple later parted ways. Then she met and married Donald Sarazin, and that union had two children (Dennis and Donna). Mr. Commanda met and married Roxanne Benoit and they had two daughters Theresa (Terri) and Connie.

“Then, years later, they came back together and had their final child (Dave Commanda) together. It was absolutely love reunited.”

Mrs. Andrews said while they were together many, many years, they did not actually get married until July 27, 1984.

In 2009, they were reunited with the daughter they had placed for adoption, Cheryl Jansen. She was in Edmonton and made the trip to Pikwakanagan.

“Cheryl took a real bond with him because she is a very outdoorsy person. When she met him, she knew right away that’s where she got her love of the outdoors.”

Cheryl has two sons, a granddaughter and a grandson.  Regrettably August did not get to meet his two grandsons or his two great-grandchildren. 

Left Home To Work At 12

The eldest of eight children of the late William Commanda, a former chief at Pikwakanagan and his wife, Mary, Mr. Commanda left home at age 12 to work in the lumber camps. While her earliest memories are not so much about being in the bush with him, they were set in another of his favourite locations, his trapping shed.

“His trapping was his true passion. He trapped everything from muskrats, to fishers, to minks, to beavers,” Mrs. Andrews said.

She said they would often go in the trapping shed and there’d be a beaver pelt nailed to one board and a mink pelt stretching on another.

“He’d teach us how to do the scraping or let us nail some of the pelts onto the boards.”

Often times, there were beaver castors (glands) hanging on wires in the sheds and Mrs. Andrews noted he would joke he was making perfume for his wife.

“He used to tell Cory and I that he’d give them to granny to rub behind her ears, the actual castors,” she laughed.

She researched it after he passed and to her surprise, she discovered the castors secret castoreum, which has a hint of vanilla scent to it, is used in perfume and food additives.

“We went in the shed the day he passed, and sure enough, there were still some hanging there.”

She noted aside from trapping locally, having his own trapline in Algonquin Park, landowners often hired him to control nuisance beavers.

Her grandfather would share his knowledge with any young members of the community who showed an interest. He also conducted different workshops in the community and during Renfrew County’s EXPO 150 he was part of the Pikwakanagan exhibit.

In 2003, he was honoured for his many contributions to the culture and community with the Anishinabek Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2016, he was one of the community members featured in the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN) documentary, “Moosemeat and Marmalade” that showcased the traditional foods. He took the hosts out to the bush to show them how to trap muskrat, which was later cooked by the two hosts.

Worked For Shaws For Over 40 Years

While Mr. Commanda supplemented his income through trapping, his job was with Herb Shaw and Sons of Pembroke, where he worked for approximately 40 years. John Shaw, the president of Canada’s oldest family-owned company, met him in the mid-1970s.

“He would have started with Shaws in 1957 when the mill was in the park (Algonquin) at White Partridge,” he said. “There was a whole crew that came from Golden Lake, all guys that would have been August’s age.

“There were two shifts, one was all First Nation people from Pikwakanagan and the other shift were guys from Allumette Island and Alice,” he added.

He believes Mr. Commanda probably started as a labourer but worked his way up to a debarker operator and sawyer.

“August would work anywhere, but his main forte was being in the bush. He would come in the off-season and would go wherever he was asked to go. He’d go and pile lumber.”  

Because the mills operated seasonally at that time and did not saw in the summer, Mr. Commanda “would go off to do his real trade,” Mr. Shaw noted.

“He’d go cruising timber, laying out roads, and marking poles for Shaws. At that time, when they’d mark the poles standing, he’d blaze them with an axe, and then he’d mark on them what size the poles were to be.

“August could make a blaze that was as smooth as anything and he’d make fun of everybody else, saying ‘that’s corrugated paper that you’re writing on because it has all the ripples’,” he added.

He said Mr. Commanda also ran the pole-peeler which makes the red pine trees into poles.

In addition to his regular duties, he would also trap nuisance beavers for the company.

He recalled one incident after Mr. Commanda had retired and was back trapping behind the pole yard in Petawawa and when Mr. Shaw met him later, his had a injured hand with blood running down his fingers. He had slipped on a beaver dam and a stick punctured a good-sized hole in his palm which likely should have required stitches.

“He had cut the top of his sock off and took the electrical tape and wrapped his hand and finished the day. Most other guys would have put their tail between their legs and gone home.”

He said Mr. Commanda was a prankster, recalling many of the loads used to be secured with chains in the old days and would sometimes tie the chains in knots to the frustration of the truck drivers.

Mr. Shaw believes Mr. Commanda worked until he was 67 and then returned on occasion if he was needed. He recalled one time when he returned, and Mr. Shaw was driving him around the pole yard and they came to the skid where the men were working. At that point, Mr. Commanda turned to Mr. Shaw and said, “Would you look at that John, it takes two young Frenchmen to take the place of one old Indian.”

He said everyone had tremendous respect for Mr. Commanda, noting when his uncle, John Shaw passed away, Mr. Commanda was one of the pallbearers for the funeral.

“Some people might have the individual skills that August had, but he had such a broad range of different skills,” he recalled. “He was just a great man.”

A Prankster

Mrs. Andrews said while many people would think her late grandmother, Shirley, was the more vocal of the two, he held his own when it came to the sarcasm, wit and pranks they exhibited with each other at their home. She shared one story where members of his hunting gang “Hardly Ever See’Um” were walking up the Pakotina Trail and every time they would stop for a smoke break, Mr. Commanda would throw a few rocks in some of the backpacks when no one was looking.

“Every time they stopped, he’d add a couple rocks so by the time they got to where they were going, they could barely carry their backpack.”

When they discovered the prank, they immediately knew who was responsible for it, which gave Mr. Commanda further delight.

Betty Wilcox, a member of the gang, composed a song about the club in 1988 to the tune of “I’ve Been Everywhere”, and Mrs. Andrews shared it at the funeral.

Best In Canada

Garwood Wilcox, another member of the Hardly Ever See’Um club, was a lifelong friend and held him in high esteem.

“We hunted and fished together for 57 years,” he said.

“He’s a real legend,” he added “He was one of the greatest bushmen, probably in all of Canada, as far as I’m concerned. He was unbelievable.”

Mr. Wilcox shared on many occasions if there was a missing person in Algonquin Park, the Ontario Provincial Police would call on Mr. Commanda to assist in the search.

“They’d come to him to guide the way in,” he said.

He spoke of his long employment with Shaw’s adding, “when you see all those telephone poles in Renfrew County, he probably marked every one of them.”

Mr. Wilcox said from a very early age, Mr. Commanda was responsible for helping harvest food for the family.

“Old Bill (his father William) used to take him up to Hwy. 58 and drop him off and he’d have to go into the bush and kill a moose. It took him three or four days to bring that out to feed his family. It’s quite a story.”

Props For Eulogy

The trouble light was one of many props Mrs. Andrews used during her eulogy, noting many people could relate to the various items that were such an important part of her grandfather’s daily routines. It was used when he was working on the pelts in his shed and when he was doing work on his truck, she and her brother in their younger years would argue over who would hold it for him.

“We soon learned what holding the trouble light for him meant and you could never hold it in the right spot.” she laughed.

The props also included some old Player’s tobacco cans and a cigarette press she and her brother used often to make cigarettes for their grandfather.

“They served not only a purpose of the tobacco for the cigarettes, but also became the ultimate storage bin. You can go into his house today and find easily upwards of 100 tobacco cans filled with every item imaginable, screws, nails, fuses, batteries, sparkplugs, you name it.” 

The used milk bags she had were used by her grandfather as insoles in every pair of boots he owned.
“He put them over his feet before he put his boots on and they’d always keep his feet dry. He has tons of them in bags and I jokingly told the family not to worry because there was a pair for each of them.” 

Her grandfather was very hard of hearing, so he had his “ear care kit” in an empty Skippy peanut butter jar which included ear drops, Q-tips, scrapers, and the candle she used for ear candling.

“There was everything imaginable, but he still couldn’t hear shit,” she laughed. 

  He had stashes of Canadian Tire money everywhere too, she said, and used to tell her and Cory he was rich.

No Medical History

When he was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2018, she said his medical records were almost non-existent because he had seldom been to a doctor.

“It was the first time in his life he was doctoring, and they were just in awe. He smoked for 77-plus years and was diagnosed with lung cancer at 86.”

She said he was well enough to participate in the annual deer hunt for a day with the club in 2020 and they did a few local chases on the First Nation.

“We knew this year that he was still thinking he was going, up until two weeks before he passed.”

She spent two hours with him the night before he died. He appeared to be fine. Her cousin, Katie Commanda, who had lived with him the past five to six years. years, had coffee with him the following morning before heading off to work, she came home and puttered around outside while he napped. She later came inside and sadly found him deceased.

Didn’t Like Recent Changes at First Nation

Mrs. Andrews said her grandfather was not a big fan of the recent changes at the First Nation, with the growth of the smoke retailers, gas stations and cannabis outlets.

“He didn’t like the speeding and the amount of traffic. He talked often of years ago when you wouldn’t see a car for days.

“He used to say this was the 401 here now,” she said. “He didn’t like it. It was hard for him to see that change.”

Honoured To Be Asked To Deliver Eulogy

Mrs. Andrews was deeply honoured to deliver her grandfather’s eulogy. His funeral was the first public event at the Makwa Centre since COVID hit and she was glad the restrictions were being lifted to allow it. She said when she looks back on it now, she is extremely proud of the message she delivered, adding the feedback she received has been extremely positive.        

“I wanted the room to be filled with laughter and not tears, because that’s what he would have wanted. He lived such a long-fulfilled life, and it really was about celebrating that. To achieve what he has achieved and to realize the impact that he’s had on so many people, it takes a special person to leave that kind of footprint.”

Perhaps unbeknownst to some, Mr. Commanda was a talented harmonica player and to close the service, she played a recording of him playing at his home that was taped on August 20.

“He played himself out.”

Legacy Fund Created

Mrs. Andrews said she had thought of establishing some type of legacy fund in her grandfather’s honour because he was so highly regarded in the community.

“There had to be something to carry on long after he was gone. So, for me, it was how do we get Pikwakanagan youth and students more interested in what his passion was, trapping, hunting and fishing?

“Those are the ways of our people for time immemorial and we need to somehow generate more interest in our youth to learn more about the culture and traditions,” she added. “So, I came up with the idea of The August Commanda Legacy Fund that would support a Pikwakanagan student ages 12 to 21 years that has a genuine interest in learning more about the land.”

The annual bursary will include their name on a plaque. She said in the two days of the viewing and funeral the fund had already received many generous donations.  

Anyone seeking more information on the Legacy Fund is asked to please contact Mrs. Andrews at 613-281-1019 or email at kerryandrews2424@gmail.com