Chief William Commanda Bridge: Interprovincial crossing renamed for Indigenous leader

A bridge is seen from the distance across the Ottawa River on a summer day in Ottawa. The sky is smoky and buildings are seen in the distance.
Ottawa city council recently voted in favour of renaming the former Prince of Wales Bridge to Chief William Commanda Bridge. Commanda was the chief of the Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg First Nation (1951 to 1970) and a well-known Algonquin elder. Photo courtesy of the City of Ottawa.

By Charlie Senack 

After decades of sitting vacant and unused, the former Prince of Wales Bridge has a new name and vision. 

On July 7, Ottawa city council voted nearly unanimously in support of renaming the interprovincial crossing to Chief William Commanda Bridge, and to invest $14 million into fixing the 141-year-old bridge. The federal government announced in late July that it will commit $8.6 million to the project.

Reconciliation efforts 

In an interview, Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson, who long campaigned on bringing forward a plan for the bridge, said he was pleased to receive almost all of council’s support on the decision. 

“This is going to be a great connection between Ottawa and Gatineau for people who want the experience and enjoyment of our many multi-use pathways,” he said. “It was a strong vote of support to honour an Algonquin leader.”

Watson said renaming the bridge after an Indigenous individual is part of the city’s ongoing reconciliation efforts. William Commanda served as chief of the Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg First Nation from 1951 to 1970, and was a well-known Algonquin elder in the Ottawa region for many years.

His granddaughter Claudette Commanda, who is an elder in the Algonquin First Nations community, told Kitchissippi Times she was pleased to see the city do the right thing and hopes this type of action continues. 

“It is [reconciliation] because it is giving recognition to an Algonquin person, because the bridge is on Algonquin land,” Commanda said. “It is a kind gesture and the right action to do. Prince of Wales – what attachment does he have to us as Algonquin people? This is our land. Start naming streets, businesses and bridges after the first peoples of the land.” 

Commanda also noted it’s a sign of respect. 

“It’s respect and recognition for my grandfather and he’s deserved all the titles, awards and recognition he has received because of who he was,” she added. 

Commanda also said it was fitting that a bridge will now bear her grandfather’s name. She says Chief William Commanda was a bridge builder who connected communities together and taught Canadians about the traditions, languages and importance of the first peoples of Canada. 

She noted that in the late 1960s, William Commanda brought First Nations people and tribes from across North America together for a multi-day gathering called “The Circle of All Nations.” 

“We had political meetings, social meetings, celebrations of our cultures: it was absolutely beautiful,” she said. “It brought people together to show the Canadian and American governments — and the world at large — that this is our land; we are the first peoples and we have rights; and that governments have to live up to their own laws.”  

Indigenous artwork will be displayed in the bridge, and whichever construction company wins the bid will have to reach out to the local Indigenous communities about employment opportunities. 

The funding announcement for the bridge on July 26. From left to right: Tobi Nussbaum, chief executive officer, National Capital Commission; Greg Fergus, Member of Parliament for Hull-Aylmer; Catherine McKenna, Member of Parliament for Ottawa Centre; Jim Watson, Ottawa mayor; Jeff Leiper, Kitchissippi Ward councillor; Grand Chief John Boudrias, Algonquin Anishinabeg Nation; Maxime Pedneaud-Jobin, Gatineau mayor; and Chief Dylan Whiteduck, Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg First Nation. Photo courtesy of the City of Ottawa.

Bridge restoration and upgrades

Under the new plan for the bridge, pedestrians and cyclists will be able to cross from Ottawa to Gatineau by foot or on bike in the summer, and by cross-country skis and snowshoes in the winter. It will also act as an extension to the Sir John A. Macdonald Winter Trail (which will also receive a new name this fall). 

Work on the bridge is expected to start later this year; the bridge is slated to open to the public sometime in 2022. 

The 1.3-kilometre bridge, which the city bought from Canadian Pacific Railway in 2005, will have a price tag of $22.5 million. Approximately $12.1 million will go towards the wooden path itself and for upgrading railings and LED lighting, and adding a few benches. And another $10.4 million will go towards restoring the piers holding up the bridge.

“I’m really excited about this. For several years since I’ve been elected, I’ve heard the desire from residents to see this bridge converted to pedestrian and cycling use,” said Kitchissippi Coun. Jeff Leiper. “This is a treasure in the neighbourhood; connecting Ottawa to Gatineau in a safe, segregated way, is going to open up all sorts of commuting routes for the hundreds of people who go back and forth between the provinces every day.”

Leiper also said that given the views of Ottawa seen from the bridge, he believes it will become a tourist attraction. 

“Getting to take in those views of Ottawa is going to become a popular activity,” Leiper said. “It’s going to also be a really popular vantage point to take in the July 1st fireworks.”

The mayor said when the bridge opens to the public as a multi-use pathway late next year, he hopes the large groups of people flocking to Chief William Commanda Bridge will act as a deterrent for those who want to jump in. 

In July 2020, a 14-year-old boy died after jumping off the former Prince of Wales Bridge when he was out with friends. This June, a 26-year-old man died after jumping off the bridge. Since then, stronger metal walls have been erected at its entrances to prevent people from breaking in. One of the families has sued the city, saying they could have done more to prevent these types of incidents from happening again.

“We are going to do whatever we can to make sure it’s as safe as possible,” Watson said. “At the end of the day, unless you put barbed wire and fencing all the way up to the top of the bridge, there are going to keep being people who are going to try and jump over the fencing. But, just to remind everyone, two people have lost their lives; it’s not safe to jump off at any part of the bridge.” 

Over the last decade and a half, the bridge has seen a number of plans for different uses. Not long ago, it was thought that trains would return to the bridge as part of the city’s LRT line connecting Ottawa to Gatineau. Watson says that’s still a possibility for decades from now, primarily because Gatineau wants its future tram to cross the Ottawa River using the nearby Portage Bridge.

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