Grand chief remembered as 'fierce defender of our rights'

Greg Horn

Joseph Tokwiro Norton was serving in his second term of his second stint as grand chief of the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake

Greg Horn
Iorì:wase

Mohawk Council of Kahnawake Grand Chief Joseph Tokwiro Norton has been laid to rest.

Norton, 70, fell at home on Aug. 14 and was rushed to hospital, where he remained in critical condition. He passed away around 8:30 that night surrounded by his family.

At the time of his death, he had been serving in his second term of his second stint as the Grand Chief of the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake after being re-elected in 2015 after an 11-year retirement.

Norton was first elected to the MCK as a Council Chief in 1978 and then was elected to the position of Grand Chief in 1982 – a position he would hold until his retirement in 2004.

“I took a break,” Norton told Iorì:wase when he announced he was running for Grand Chief in 2015. “I’m hoping for re-election after 11 years. Hopefully, I can help this community in its growth to the next level that it needs to go to.”

Norton was also the Grand Chief during one of the most difficult times this community has faced in modern history – the 1990 Oka Crisis. He said that during that time he, as well as other members of Council were at the forefront of a number of confrontations.

“It was a very dangerous moment in our lives,” Norton said in 2015. “Being in the forefront, if you will, of a number of different confrontations particularly on the Island with the helicopters coming in with military wanting to cross the bridge and coming into the community itself. We (the community) literally put a halt to that even though there was teargas and guns. I’m very proud of the fact that at the moment I felt that I knew what I had to do, and that was to get in between our people and the military, mind you I wasn’t alone – there was other people there too. We understood there could have been a lot of loss of life on both sides had we not had anyone there and it just turned into conflict. I felt good about that, regardless of what anyone ever thought about it. To this day I still think that it was my role as a leader that’s where I had to be.”

In 2002, Norton was awarded with the National Aboriginal Achievement Award for Public Service.

“He was known throughout Turtle Island and across North America as a fierce defender of our rights,” the MCK said in a statement. “For many, he will be best remembered for his role during the Oka Crisis of 1990. Though many consider this his defining moment, his role in our history goes far beyond the events of 30 years ago. Under his leadership Kahnawake saw unprecedented growth in many areas, particularly in economic development and the battle to restore and expand Kahnawake’s jurisdiction. The community’s direction did not always mesh with that of the provincial and federal governments – something that Mr. Norton took great pride in. He became known as a strong voice for Indigenous solidarity, defiance and determination. As a statesman, he carried a vision in continually striving for the advancement of Indigenous governance.”

Norton’s death has affected all segments of the community and beyond.

The Mohawk Nation at Kahnawake said that it was shocked and saddened by the sudden passing of Norton.

“His passing was a blow to the community,” the Mohawk Nation at Kahnawake said. “While we may have not agreed with his political path, we can never question Joe’s endless dedication and love for his people and we acknowledge his many contributions to better the lives of all Kahnawa’kehró:non. His work will be felt by generations to come. The Longhouse offers its deepest condolences and sympathies to the family and friends of Joe Norton. He will be missed and remembered.”

Members of the Royal Canadian Legion Mohawk Brand 219 conduct a rifle salute for Norton. (Photo by Greg Horn/Iorì:wase)
Members of the Royal Canadian Legion Mohawk Brand 219 conduct a rifle salute for Norton. (Photo by Greg Horn/Iorì:wase)

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau offered his condolences to the community over Twitter.

“For three decades, Grand Chief Joseph Norton was a passionate advocate for his community and served with distinction,” Trudeau said. “He leaves behind a remarkable legacy and my thoughts are with his family, friends and entire community as they morn his passing.”

The Assembly of First Nations of Quebec and Labrador offered its condolences on Norton’s passing.

“For several decades, Grand Chief Norton has been a prominent figure in the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake, as well as in the life and history of his community and Nation, to which he always demonstrated his attachment, dedication, and loyalty,” the AFNQL said. 

“On many occasions, the Mohawks of Kahnawake have chosen him to lead their Council. In particular, he was Grand Chief during the critical period experienced by his Nation in the summer of 1990, at a time when his leadership was instrumental on several occasions. Grand Chief Norton holds a prominent place among the women and men who have maintained and enforced the values and traditions of the Mohawk Nation while ensuring its development. Grand Chief Norton's interventions at the table of the Assembly of First Nations Quebec-Labrador have always been marked by insight and the search for consensus and have been greatly appreciated by all the Chiefs. It is on their behalf that I offer my most sincere sympathies to his family, the members of the Council, the people of Kahnawake and the great Mohawk Nation. We are losing a great leader whose wisdom will continue to inspire us all.”

MCK Chief Mike Delisle, who served as Grand Chief from 2004 until 2015, said that the Norton’s passing is shocking.

“He always had the community’s best interest in mind – whether it be economic development, whether it be jurisdictional elements and fighting the outside government – he did what he felt was right and he needed to do,” Delisle said.

Delisle also said that Norton’s legacy has been firmly entrenched in this community – long before he came out of retirement in 2015.

“He was the face and voice of this community, but also in our sister community of Kanehsatake and for Indigenous people across North America and beyond,” Delisle said.

“(In 1990) he stood in the face of the Canadian Armed Forces, stood in the face of our own people, which at times is even worse than our own people, and everything in between. To me his legacy is firmly in place,” Delisle said. “He always had Kahnawake’s best interests at heart.”

He also said that it’s unprecedented for a sitting Grand Chief to pass away in office. However, under the MCK Election Law, there is no byelection called when more than half of the term has passed. Out of respect for the late Grand Chief, the MCK was temporarily closed, and the Council table was not conducting any political business for 10 days following Norton’s passing.

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde made the trip to Kahnawake to attend the funeral.

“When you think of Grand Chief Joe Norton you think of strength, honour, respect, diplomacy, determination, standing up for rights, title and jurisdiction, sovereignty and nationhood – that’s what you think of when you think of Grand Chief Joe Norton,” Bellegarde said. “He helped everybody right across Turtle Island. He was a leader, a colleague and a friend to many, many people. You look at his leadership during the Oka Crisis, he helped a lot in the recent railway blockades.”

To accommodate all the people wishing to pay their respects to the Grand Chief, he was laid out outside at the Kahnawake Sports Complex. Physical distancing guidelines were in effect. Funeral services took place Aug. 19, starting with several speeches, followed by a Traditional funeral service at 11 a.m.

Tribute speeches began at 10 a.m. and those who spoke included former MCK Chief Peggy Mayo-Standup, federal Minister of Indigenous Services Marc Miller, Assembly of First Nations of Quebec and Labrador Regional Chief Ghislain Picard and MCK Chief Ross Montour.

Miller spoke highly of Norton saying that, in 1990, when he was a 17-year-old in his first summer in the Canadian Army stationed in Valcartier – that he knew who Norton was.

“Everyone knew who Joe Norton was,” Miller said. “Ever since my first meeting with him as a Member of Parliament where he rolled out a Two Row Wampum and essentially said ‘…stay in your lane, we have gotten along very well over the last few years and we chatted at times, sometimes intensely, over various matters.”

Miller said that he’s had the opportunity lately to speak to Norton often.

“Over the last six months I spent a considerable amount of time with him, mostly over the phone or by text, and I spoke to him almost daily for a few tense weeks at the end of February and beginning of March,” Miller relayed. “As the solidarity movements for the Wet’suwet’en People grew across the country and various barricades were erected, injunctions issued, cries for enforcement ringing out throughout the country, his concern for his people grew because he knew them well and he knew Canada well. And, he was seeing a pattern of behaviour eerily starting to repeat itself.

“It’s something that appeared to haunt him,” Miller recounted. “What I’ve started to appreciate throughout my time in government, is that if you are dedicated to Peace, you need to take the steps to prepare for it, to preserve it and work as hard if not harder than those out there seeking to destroy Peace. Joe was a man of Peace. And throughout the early months of this year he worked hard at it. We made sure we were in constant contact so that were there to be movement on the West Coast, everyone would have the same information thus avoiding mistakes and actions people would ultimately regret.

“He even offered the services of the Peacekeepers should they be needed out West,” Miller said. “He guided me through the process needed to ensure people were of one mind to move the fire and helped me understand the need for the Government of Canada to be patient. At the same time, he was also immensely proud and hopeful of the unity being displayed during this time and proud of his people for speaking with one voice to Canada. It seems like ages ago, because we jumped from one crisis to another, but we continued communicating constantly throughout this pandemic to ensure that Kahnawake had all the resources and shipments of personal protective equipment it needed to face this scary but still unpredictable virus.”

MCK Chief Ross Montour spoke of his friendship with Norton and his dedication to the community. He thanked Norton’s family for allowing Norton to be the person he was to the community and for supporting him.

Norton leaves behind his loving partner Sally Patton, his children Aaron and Jodie and his beloved grandchildren Sahanatie and Rayce-Barrett Leblanc. He was predeceased by his parents Peter and Hazel Hemlock Norton, his brothers Louis (“Sonny”) and George (“Pidgie”) and sister Selma. Joe Norton came from a large and loving family including his brothers and sisters Edna, Elizabeth, Roger, Esther, Jennifer (Dennis), David (Lesley), Faye and Timmy (Noreen), along with uncles Denis Norton and Johnny Hemlock and aunt Louise Hemlock as well as his Skead family in Kenora, Ontario. He leaves numerous nieces, nephews, colleagues and friends.

Iorì:wase

This obituary was originally published in Iorì:wase. 

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