My Friend Was Killed Running from a Canadian Residential School
by Doug George-Kanentiio Akwesasne Mohawk
On a clear September evening at 5:14 pm in the west end of Toronto my friend, 13 year old Joey Commanda, was struck and killed by a commuter train.
The train was moving east at 65 mph towards the central rail yards and the Union Station, carrying passengers homewards after a Labour Day weekend.
Joey Commanda, barely a teenager, less than five feet tall and weighing 90 pounds, was also on his way home, a trek he began when he fled the notorious Mohawk Institute, one of Canada’s residential schools for Indigenous children.
Joey had made it 60 miles from the Institute, located in Brantford, Ontario, following train tracks adjacent to the school grounds. He was with his brother Rocky, a year older, who had been caught by the Ontario Provincial Police in Hamilton, halfway to Toronto. Joey escaped the police and continued on his journey solo with another 200 miles ahead. Once he reached Canada’s largest city he would have to abandon the tracks and walk or hitchhike a series of backroads before he reached his home, the Golden Lake Reserve located in the north central part of the province. Now called the Pikwakanaga First Nation, it is part of the Algonquin people whose homelands stretched from Ontario to central Quebec.
Joey was, like Rocky and most of the other Institute children, taken from his home a year before, removed from their Native community as part of a generations long process to eradicate his heritage, teach him a trade and coerce him to become a part of the Canadian mainstream. It was designed to “kill the Indian” and it did just that when the brutal conditions Joey was subjected to were too much for an ill fed skinny Native boy to endure.
I was a mate, a friend, a pal of Joey’s. Six months before he was brought to the Institute I was taken from my home on the Akwesasne Mohawk Territory located astride the international border along the St. Lawrence River where Quebec, Ontario and New York are joined. I was born and raised on the “Canadian” side of Akwesasne and attended the local school, overseen by the Jesuit order of the Catholic Church. I was a communicant of the last Jesuit mission in North America, a good student in those pre-Vatican II times, living across from the church and serving as an altar boy.
My good behavior did not stop the parish priest from collaborating with the Indian Agent and the local detachment of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to have me sent to the Institute, 350 miles away, along with my brother. I was 11 and he was 10. We had no idea of our destination or the months of terror and violence we would witness. The Institute was referred to as the “mush hole” because of the watery porridge we were given each day for breakfast along with a slice of burned white white toast and powdered milk. The compulsion to eat anything outside of the meager dining hall diet was overwhelming, the hunger pains in our stomachs made worse by having to march, military platoon style, past the abundance of food on the tables of the supervisors. Denial of food was an immediate response to any violation of the many rules which controlled our actions from the 6 AM ringing of a large brass bell to the lights out at 8 pm regardless of the day.
Joey and Rocky’s family were not given a choice as to their taking. Once the priest identified the children selected for transport the police were sent to ensure the parents did not intervene. If they did they were subject to criminal charges and could be sentenced to jail. There was no appeal.
The Algonquin boys found themselves in a large red brick building, four stories tall and separated into two-girls on one wing, boys in the other without any interaction except for their joint classes. The boys would have been stripped naked upon their arrival, sprayed with some kind of bug killing powder then moved into a common shower, their clothes taken from them before then were given numbers to be marked on their new clothing which resembled the outfits worn to Canadian prison inmates.
At least those prisoners got better food. Our friends would be on the hunt for something extra to eat, even if it meant plucking the wings of large insects before eating them for the protein. Our meals were starches: potatoes and beans were the staples.
Violence from the supervisors was common. Corporal punishment was imposed with a three foot, two inch strap with enough force to make the toughest kid cry. I know, having received a beating that continued until I shed “crocodile” tears. Joey saw this and it terrified him.
Our group were Mohawks, referred to as the “St. Regis Boys’ ‘ all nine of us. We were first class troublemakers for the supervisors. If we left the grounds for any reason our impulse was to steal anything we could, particularly food. We were banned from every store in Brantford for our thieving and our eagerness to fight any of the local, non-Native boys. When the white kids were not available we fought with each other, destroyed property and ran away. We were always caught on those train tracks as the OPP knew the trains were the way home and that is where we were arrested.
Our bad behavior was serious enough to have the Institute expel us as a group, something never done in the 140 years of the mush hole. We took great satisfaction in this decision but it led to the Commanda boys decision to run.
When they returned in September of that year we were not there. We could not protect them or include the Commandas in our acts of defiance. They were vulnerable, and I sometimes think they may have been on their way northeast to find us at Akwesasne.
Joey was killed in the most terrible way by a train moving at that speed. The conductor testified he saw him cross one set of tracks to avoid a westbound train only to stumble as he tried to make it across track number 3. He may have stumbled over one of the rails or gotten caught in the loose gravel but the conductor’s blowing of the train’s horn was not enough to prevent Joey from being hit, his death instantaneous.
Joey’s family were angry and forced an investigation into the mistreatment, the beatings, and the sexual abuses, all of which went on unchecked inside the Mohawk Institute. The result was the ordering of the closure of the mush hole in 1971 but Joey’s death was only the last. We had heard there were many more before him, kids who were taken, assaulted, and buried somewhere on the school grounds.
No one was ever prosecuted for Joey’s death – no one was ever brought to justice for the generations of criminal acts committed against helpless Native children. To this date not one of the abusers at the Institute has been charged and the Anglican Church of Canada, contracted by the federal government to manage the school, has escaped liability altogether.
Now that thousands of graves are being found in some of the 130 former schools, criminal proceedings will commence. On August 28-29 a National march for Joey Commanda will retrace his steps from the place where he ran at the Institute to the exact place of his death in western Toronto. I will be there, along with his surviving Mohawk pals, to honour this most sensitive and terrified boy.
Doug George-Kanentiio, is from the Akwesasne Mohawk Nation. He is a former member of the Board of Trustees for the National Museum of the American Indian and is a co-founder of the Native American Journalists Association. He may be reached via e-mail at: Kanentiio@aol.com or by calling 315-415-7288. Kanentiio resides on Oneida Territory in Oneida Castle, NY