Ever since Claudette Commanda walked onto the campus of the University of Ottawa over three decades ago, she’s been a driving force for change.
As the university’s next chancellor, succeeding Calin Rovinescu, whose term will end in the fall, she hopes the new role will help her work for change for the betterment of Indigenous students.
“I wanted to always be part of this university to make change,” said Commanda, who is an Anishinaabe (Algonquin) elder from Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg in western Quebec.
“Changes are needed to create and or enhance relationships with Indigenous communities, but also to raise the awareness of the importance that Indigenous students have a place in a university world.”
The chancellor, a ceremonial or executive head of a university, is appointed by a board of governors and holds office for four years, with eligibility for re-appointment. She is the first Indigenous leader to take on the role at the University of Ottawa.
“She will continue bringing her leadership, passion, and wisdom, on behalf of Indigenous peoples to the university as a whole,” said university president and vice-chancellor Jacques Frémont in a statement.
Commanda has a long history with the university. First as a student in 1987, she graduated with degrees from the faculty of arts and the faculty of law.
During her studies, she founded a First Nations student association to improve their representation on campus and established what is now called the Mashkawazìwogamig Indigenous Resource Centre.
Over the years, she’s taught at the Institute of Women’s Studies, the faculty of law, and the faculty of education, and the Indigenous studies program.
Most recently, she was the inaugural elder-in-residence appointed to the faculty of law, and served as special adviser on reconciliation to the dean of the faculty of law.
Meaningful for Indigenous students
For Indigenous students, the appointment signals change at the university.
“Claudette is from the same community I am, and this matters so deeply to me as an Anishinabekwe,” said Victoria Marchand, who is studying social sciences and Indigenous studies.
“Many students don’t know what a chancellor or senate of a university is walking into post-secondary…. Seeing a large position filled, I hope to see the trickle-down and have tangible impacts.”
Tewateronhiakhwa Nelson, who recently graduated from law school, echoed similar sentiments.
“A school sitting on unceded Algonquin territory should have that representation, no questions asked,” said Nelson, who is from Kanesatake, northwest of Montreal.
“Our Indigenous students need to be able to see that the sky’s the limit and we are totally able to occupy these colonial spaces, especially such high positions where they play a significant role within the institution.”
As for Commanda, the role is an opportunity to bring who she is to the university.
“I’m very proud to be an Algonquin person to carry this title, to give more visibility on campus who Algonquin people are, our history, our ways of knowing, our ways of being,” she said.
LISTEN to Claudette Commanda speak to CBC Radio’s Ottawa Morning about her appointment: