Remembering JoLeigh Commandant, the first director of PBI’s Central America Project

Published by Brent Patterson on

JoLeigh Commandant led an extraordinary life of commitment to social justice, Indigenous rights, peace and human rights.

Quaker.org has noted, “JoLeigh Commandant, a Toronto Quaker, became the first staffer of PBI’s Central American program.”

She would have been about 59 years of age at the time.

A Peace Brigades International-USA interview with Daniel N. Clark, one of the founders of Peace Brigades International in September 1981, further tells us:

“During the time of the [PBI international] office in Walla Walla, I organized the Central America Project Committee, which met in Philadelphia for the first time, face-to-face, in November 1982… Subsequently, PBI International contracted with PBI Canada (our first country group) to administer the Central America Project after we had appointed JoLeigh Commandant as Central America Project Director on George Willoughby’s recommendation.”

Clark has also noted, “JoLeigh had been heavily involved in Native Peoples’ rights, had traveled in Mexico and Peru, and had served as a representative to a UN conference on North and South American Indian rights in Geneva and as an election observer in Bolivia.”

A November 1983 Santa Cruz Friends Bulletin also includes a story told by Mary Duffield, who was with the Santa Cruz Peace Brigade, of a journey she, JoLeigh and two others made to Nicaragua with Peace Brigades International:

Mary wrote:

“As one of four Friends involved in a two-week nonviolent vigil for peace along the Nicaraguan-Honduran border, I truly believe we are nourishing a seed of enormous potential in this Peace Brigades International idea.”

“The vigils culminated usually in celebrations of song and laughter, the youngsters especially delighting in the Spanish version of ‘Old MacDonald had a Farm’, (as tracer bullets lit up the sky and automatic rifles sounded off in the distance).”

“The day before we left Jalapa, we attended the funeral of one of the young men killed by mercenaries blowing up a customs station. After the church ceremony (the revolution has not opposed the churches, and many religious officials are in total support of the Sandinistas), Antonio’s army companeros bore the coffin along.”

“The company commander also was the dead boy’s grandfather. He had lost his son only a little while before. The grandfather ordered the man’s youngsters and related children to scrape the first  dirt down over the coffin. The sobbing little ones could not do this.”

“So, the old man entreated them tearfully: ‘You must … we’re doing this for you, we’re doing this for the children…’”

“The villagers began to sing their hymns, and we joined in. Then JoLeigh Commandant, impulsively, moved to the woman calling to Antonio to stay, put her arms around her, saying: ‘Yes, we are all doing this for the children. That is why we must have peace, for all the world’s children.’”

“The old man and the woman turned toward JoLeigh and nodded, with a new awareness in their eyes, and somehow we were all uplifted for a moment of shared hope. We all clasped hands in that sacred awareness.”

“The morning we left Managua for home we heard the radio broadcasters: ‘This is the morning the Peace Brigadiers are leaving. These are the people who came all the way here to show us that many North Americans care about the people of Central America.’”

The Spring 2013 issue of Quaker Concern tells us more about JoLeigh’s life before joining with Peace Brigades International in 1982.

That article notes:

“JoLeigh was born in Texas, married and had three children (Daniel, Arleigh, and James), and achieved a Masters in Psychiatric Social Work. After her marriage ended in 1961, she became involved with Friends.”

“In 1963, she and her children participated in the March on Washington where Martin Luther King gave his iconic ‘I have a dream’ speech.”

“In 1968 JoLeigh immigrated to Canada, where she met and married Alex Commandant, a member of the Whata Nation (then known as the Gibson Reserve).”

“In 1973, while Canadian Yearly Meeting was in session, an armed standoff occurred at Anishinaabe Park in Kenora, Ontario, where Ojibwa occupied the park and were surrounded by police and racist vigilantes. JoLeigh brought this concern to Yearly Meeting and led a group of Friends there who camped between the police and the Aboriginal people.”

(The Canadian Quaker History Journal has noted: “Friends JoLeigh Commandant and Derek Day traveled from Winnipeg with the caravan; JoLeigh played an important and courageous role in diffusing tension between the First Nations and the police after its arrival.”)

“JoLeigh was one of several Friends who spent considerable time living at Grassy Narrows, working with the residents to document the damage done by mercury and to draw the attention of the media, the public and governments to the issue.”

“In 1974, JoLeigh travelled with the Native Caravan that crossed Canada and occupied an empty building in Ottawa, declaring it a First Nations Embassy. …At one point [weeks later] JoLeigh staged a one-person sit-in at a Minister’s office, remaining until she was carried out, still on the chair, and deposited, gently, outside.”

The Canadian Quaker History Journal also notes:

“In 1973 Yonge Street Half-Yearly Meeting received a request from British Friends for support on their stand against capital punishment. …Shortly after [that], Richard Broughton and JoLeigh Commandant took part in a workshop on prison abolition at Powell House in New York State [that led] to the creation of a Prison Committee the very next year.”

JoLeigh passed way on January 15, 2013 at 90 years of age.

Peace Brigades International-Canada remembers her incredible spirit and commitment to peace, human rights and social justice.

Photos: JoLeigh at a United Nations Conference on Discrimination Against Indigenous Populations in the Americas in Geneva in September 1977. And JoLeigh in a photo posted on Facebook at the time of her passing in 2013.

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