It was a beautiful, sunny day in Val-d’Or when a record number of people participated in the 17th annual Gabriel Commanda Walk March 23. The event is part of the city’s annual Week for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination organized by the Val-d’Or Native Friendship Centre.
The International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination is held every year on March 21. It was on that day in 1960s South Africa that police opened fire and killed 69 people in Sharpeville at a peaceful anti-apartheid demonstration. The United Nations adopted the date in 1966 as a message to the international community to combat racial discrimination.
In Val-d’Or, a city with a troubled history of racial friction and police abuses of Indigenous people, the activities are held during the week of March 21 and the central event is the Gabriel Commanda Walk.
This year’s occasion saw over a thousand people participate, including people of all ages from schoolchildren to mayors and even MP Romeo Saganash.
According to Edith Cloutier, executive director of the Val-d’Or Native Friendship Centre, the events of the week were a lot of work but they were also their most successful to date.
The Gabriel Commanda Walk started 17 years ago. Cloutier said the Friendship Centre has always celebrated March 21 as the international day against racism, but then in the year 2000 they decided to do more.
“We needed to invest more energy in the fight against racism for all sorts of reasons so the Friendship Centre took a lead in getting the whole week organized, now we call it the week against racism or the week against racial discrimination,” Cloutier said.
The walk was named after Gabriel Commanda, a Native guide from Kitigan Zibi who played a major role in the history and founding of the City of Val-d’Or. Back in 1923, while working as a guide for prospector Robert C. Clark, Commanda discovered a large gold vein that would eventually become the Lamaque mine and lead to the gold rush in the Abitibi region.
In 1967, Val-d’Or recognized Commanda’s contributions and a street and park were named after him.
“Gabriel Commanda is seen as a bridge builder between nations,” Cloutier said.
Indeed Commanda’s “bridge-building” qualities were in effect at this year’s function as members of both the Native and non-Native communities were in attendance.
The large participation from Val-d’Or schools was inspiring for Cloutier. She says there has always been good involvement from students and teachers, but this year was special.
“That is very interesting because we know at a very young age, that is when we can do a lot of sensitization about how racism can affect your lives and how racism is not right,” Cloutier said, “So we were very happy having the schools of Val-d’Or attending.”
Cloutier said students and teachers from six or seven schools in Val-d’Or took part including the Golden Valley School and the school in Lac-Simon, which closed for the day to allow its students to participate.
Val-d’Or Mayor Pierre Corbeil said he has been involved in almost every walk since it began in 2000 and this year he walked with Amnesty International Canada’s French-language executive director, Beatrice Vaugrante, who was made the honorary president of the event.
Colbeil also participated in a summit of nine Quebec mayors and Native Friendship Centre leaders at the Université du Québec en Abitibi–Témiscamingue, an event attended by close to 100 people.
According to Corbeil everyone in attendance was enthusiastic about promoting collaboration and dialogue about the important subject of discrimination in their respective communities.
“We were there to initiate a movement to respond to the ‘take action’ invitation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC),” Corbeil said.
What Corbeil was referring to were the recommendations, some addressed to municipalities, given by the TRC. Corbeil said the Val-d’Or plan involves starting with the two or three “most important” recommendations and then to continue to work on the others.
The Val-d’Or mayor recognized that nine Quebec communities is a small start but said it is also an important step in initiating discussions and implementing action plans.
“We have to recognize that a lot of Native people choose to stay in our different municipalities and live or pass through our urban areas,” Corbeil said. “We have to work together to promote dialogue to improve urban Aboriginal citizens’ quality of life.”
Among some of the topics discussed were availability of affordable housing, combating discrimination and racism, and a greater awareness among municipal stakeholders regarding the history and realities of Indigenous peoples.
This was the second meeting of its kind. The first summit was held October 2016 in La Tuque. Corbeil said he is pleased that the initiative is being continued. Next year’s meeting will be in Sept- Îles followed by Chibougamau in 2019.
There is a joint committee to assure the implementation of the directives adopted at these meetings. Corbeil said Val-d’Or will continue to take action to improve the quality of life for its Native residents.
The mayor also stressed the importance of improving dialogue between Natives and non-Natives in Val-d’Or and in efforts to improve relations, “not only during sports, education and commercial activities but in all situations.”