The Institute was originally founded in 1998 as the Institute of Canadian Studies under the leadership of Dr. Chad Gaffield. It housed the undergraduate and collaborative PhD programs in Canadian Studies. In 2004, Dr. Georges Sioui, professor of Religious Studies and Huron-Wendat scholar from Wendake, was hired to create and coordinate a new Aboriginal Studies program. The program was inaugurated at a special ceremony on 15 April 2004 at Algonquin Elder William Commanda’s Lodge, in Kitigan Zibi Algonquin Anishinaabe First Nation near Maniwaki. Thirty people gathered in the Lodge and participated in a Talking Circle ceremony officiated by Commanda saying how they, as “relatives of this child prepared it to be born” (as the metaphor is now set), would be involved in establishing “the kind of care [it] needs to receive if it is to become the strong and happy offspring it was dreamed to become.” Dr. Sioui ran the program until his retirement, and remains an emeritus professor with the Institute.
Since 2010, the Institute has been home to the research lab and offices belonging to the Chair in Métis Research and, as interest in Indigenous Studies grew both at the University of Ottawa, the Institute of Canadian Studies was renamed the Institute of Canadian and Aboriginal Studies in January 2013. At the time, the faculty members who taught in the program either came from other departments or were cross-appointed to teach in the undergraduate Aboriginal Studies program. Two such cross-appointed professors remain central to the academic mission of the program—Dr. Sonia Wesche (Dept of Geography, Environment, and Geomatics) and Dr. Daniel Rück (Dept of History).
On 24 September 2014 the building housing the Institute of Canadian and Aboriginal Studies was redesignated as William Commanda Hall. The designation of the building was initiated by Dean of the Faculty of Arts, Antoni Lewkowicz, and undertaken in consultation with the family of the late Elder, William Commanda, including part-time professor and alumna, Claudette Commanda.