Joseph Tokwiro Norton, Grand Chief of the Mohawk Nation of Kahnawà:ke has died at age 70.
According to a press release issued by the Mohawk Council of Kahnawà:ke (MCK), Norton succumbed to injuries in hospital after suffering from a fall in his home Friday afternoon.
Norton’s family was at his bedside when he took his last breath at about 8:30 p.m., the release said.
“His death comes as a shock to his fellow Ratsénhaienhs (Council Chiefs) and the entire community, as he had participated in the weekly Council meeting just five days ago,” indicated the release.
Norton was well-loved and respected by his community and beyond. He was first elected to the office in 1978 and elected as Grand Chief in 1982 where he served 13 consecutive terms.
He was serving his second term since returning to the Office of Grand Chief in 2015.
“Very few men in this world have a chance to leave their mark, Joe Norton left one hell of a mark,” said Kanesatake Grand Chief Serge Otsi Simon.
Norton is credited with being the great defender of Indigenous rights in Turtle Island and across North America.
“It’s hard to imagine what Kahnawake would have been without him,” said Kenneth Deer, journalist and former publisher/editor at the Eastern Door.
Grand Chief Simon agreed. “He did well for his community, he did well for the Mohawk nation, his legacy you can see in Kahnawà:ke — it’s thriving buisnesses and you can see the impact on elevating Kahnawake in a better way. Joe Norton — his name is going to be in Kahnawake’s history books for generations to come. As well as ours.”
Norton played a vital role in the Oka Crisis of 1990 — one that will be read in history books for years to come.
“1990 was so tense, it was going to take only one spark for this to become a civil war across the country,” Simon said. “I believe that. I believed it then and I believe it now that we avoided that by a whisker.”
On July 11 of that year, a clash between the Sûreté du Québec and the Mohawks of Kanesatake left one dead — Corporal Marcel Lemay.
The project to expand a golf course and build condominiums on ancestral lands was at the heart of the conflict that lasted 78 days.
The Oka crisis has become the symbol of the native claims and also of the incomprehension in the relations between the State and the First Nations.
But beyond that, the people of Kahnawà:ke are eternally grateful for his service promoting economic growth within the jurisdiction and free trade amongst the Iroquois nations and other First Nations communities, explains Chief Simon.
“He became known as a strong voice for Indigenous solidarity, defiance and determination.”
In 2002, Norton was awarded a National Aboriginal Achievement Award for Public Service, which is now known as Indspire, according to the Mohawk Council of Kahnawà:ke. He was also a special consultant for the Federal Bridge Corporation Limited, founded the company Turtle Technologies and was the CEO of Mohawk Internet Technologies.
People have not always agreed with Norton’s politics, but according to Deer, he did his best to keep the Mohawk community strong and closeknit despite it all.
“He learned how we may not always agree but we have to find a way to get along and he always strived to do that,” said Deer. “He was a tower of strength because there were difficulties and there were difficulties internally as well but he was strong and he made the decisions that had to be made.”
The Mohawk Council shared their grief with the community in a statement on Friday night.
“He will surely be welcomed to the Spirit World by those who walked Turtle Island before him,” wrote the MCK.
Politicians offered their condolences on social media Friday night after learning of the passing of Kahnawà:ke’s Grand Chief.
“I am sad to learn of the death of the Grand Chief of Kahnawake, Joseph Tokwiro Norton who served for 30 years. I offer my most sincere condolences to his family, loved ones and the whole community,” Premier François Legault wrote on Twitter.
The leader of the Liberal Party of Quebec Dominique Anglade offered her condolences as well.
“Thirty years in the service of his nation. It is with sadness that I learned of the passing of Grand Chief Joe Norton. A man who has greatly contributed to the development of his community. Sincere condolences to the family.”
Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante highlighted Chief Norton’s contribution.
“The community of Kahnawa: ke and the Mohawk Nation have just lost a great man in the person of Grand Chief Norton. Joe Norton has been an ally of MTL on the road to reconciliation. I wish to extend my sincere condolences to his family, his community and his nation. ”
The MCK said more details will follow is days to come once funeral arrangements are made.
— With files from Global’s Olivia O’Malley and The Canadian Press