Longtime Kahnawake Grand Chief Joseph Norton has died

Joseph Tokwiroh Norton, who served as Kahnawake's Grand Chief for nearly 30 years, has died at 70. He will be remembered for his role as a negotiator in the Oka crisis and as a tireless champion of Indigenous rights.

Norton served as grand chief for nearly 30 years

Grand Chief Joe Norton in Kahnawake on Sept. 18, 2018. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

Joseph Tokwiroh Norton, who served as Kahnawake's Grand Chief for nearly 30 years, has died. He was 70 years old.

The Mohawk Council of Kahnawake confirmed Norton's death shortly after 9:30 p.m. Friday.

"Locally, if you have a certain age, he's all you've ever known as the grand chief," said Joe Delaronde, the council's spokesperson. "He did so much to modernize Kahnawake politics."

Norton and his predecessor, Andrew Delisle, "transformed Kahnawake politics from a little town and put it on the national map," Delaronde said.

A fluent speaker of Kanien'kéhaNorton was first elected to the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake in 1978 and became grand chief in 1982.

He served as grand chief until his retirement in 2004. He made a comeback in 2015, when he was elected leader once again, before going on leave following a medical procedure last June. While he was away, Mohawk Council Chief Gina Deer was put in charge of the office. 

Norton suffered a fall at his home on Friday afternoon and was taken to hospital, the council said in a press release.

"He had few health issues," said Delaronde. "He had a pacemaker put in a little while back but he was fine. He was participating in our council meeting this Monday. This was pretty sudden. And everybody here is completely shocked."

Mohawk Council of Kahnawake Grand Chief Joseph Norton, second from left, is joined by First Nations leaders as he discusses actions related to Wet'suwet'en during a press conference in Ottawa on Feb. 18, 2020. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

A press release issued by the council noted that under Norton's 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."

For many, Norton will be remembered for his leadership as a negotiator in the Oka crisis in 1990. "People in Kahnawake were really struck at that time by his role because he wasn't afraid to get his hands dirty," Delaronde said.

He was honoured with a National Aboriginal Achievement Award (now known as Indspire) for Public Service in 2002, for his role as a key negotiator in the crisis. 

On its website, Indspire says he was granted the award for his work defusing tensions, both during the crisis and in its aftermath. 

Just this February, Norton spoke out against a court order to dismantle a railway blockade in the community, which had been erected in support of Wet'suwet'en hereditary chiefs, saying Quebec provincial police and the police service operated by the Canadian Pacific Railway had no place in the community. 

Tributes pour in

On social media, public figures paid tribute to Norton's leadership and tireless efforts on behalf of his community.

"Joe Norton has been an ally of MTL, working towards reconciliation from the start," Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante wrote on Twitter. "I wish to extend my deepest condolences to his family, community and his nation."

"It is with sadness that I see that Grand Chief Joe Norton has passed on to the other world to join his ancestors," wrote Judith Sayers, former chief of the Hupacasath First Nation and current president of the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council. "He led the Mohawks of Kahnawake for many years. I was a young leader when I met him. Good man. My sympathies to his family and Nation."

Artist and activist Ellen Gabriel knew Norton from the days of the Oka crisis. "He was a great statesman, a fluent Kanien'kéha speaker and Turtle clan relative," Gabriel wrote. "We always had honest conversations acknowledging each other's political points of views: but he was gracious and respectful."

Before entering politics, Norton was an ironworker and was known as an entrepreneur in the community.