Kahnawake Grand Chief Joseph Norton remembered as strong leader through difficult times

Community members and politicians, look back on Norton's decades-long legacy.

Community members, politicians look back on Norton's decades-long legacy

Joe Tokwiroh Norton, right, pictured with former Grand Chief Andrew Tanakohate Delisle. (Submitted by Alana Atwin)

Longtime Kahnawake Grand Chief Joseph Tokwiroh Norton, who died yesterday evening at the age of 70, is being remembered as a force to be reckoned with by those who knew him.

As Kahnawake's grand chief for more than three decades, he oversaw unprecedented economic development and fought for Kahnawake's land claims.  

Norton was first elected to the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake in 1978 and became grand chief in 1982, acting as a key negotiator during the Oka Crisis eight years later.

"For 30 years, he was known as a fierce advocate for the Mohawk people," Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller said in an interview Saturday.

"His ability to be a leader under what is a marking point in our common history stands out." 

Norton retired in 2004 but made a comeback to politics in 2015, when he was once again elected the community's leader. He remained in that role until his death.

For Alana Atwin, a member of the community, her fondest memories of Norton have nothing to do with politics.

She remembers Norton coming into the restaurant she used to work at on many quiet nights, telling jokes — some funny, others not so much. 

Atwin's late grandfather and former Grand Chief, Andrew Tanakohate Delisle, was a mentor to Norton, she said.

Though not everyone agreed with Norton's politics, she said she always supported him because she believed he had the community's interests at heart and because she knows the difficult decisions that come with being in a position of power.

"That role is so difficult and it's only after they're gone that we pay tribute to them, because when they're sitting in that hot seat, nobody goes to them and says, 'Hey, you're doing a great job,'" said Atwin.

She said Norton gave everything he had to the community. One example was when Norton stepped in during a confrontation in the Oka Crisis.

"If he didn't do what he had that day, by standing in front of our community member and saying 'stay back, hold back … they would have attacked us," said Atwin. "I have no doubt in my mind, there would have been people who would have died that day." 

'A strong-willed person'

Former Chief Robert Patton served alongside Norton on the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake for three years, but knew him as a hockey coach long before that. He remembers him as a supportive leader.

"He would support you all the time. No matter what the decision is, he would always support you," Patton said.

Patton said Norton was a "force to be reckoned with."

"He never would take no for an answer. He would always defend his community to the best of his abilities. He was a strong-willed person."

"That is going to be hard to find in a leader today," Patton said.

Norton leaves a huge political legacy, connecting Indigenous communities from across the continent, Patton said.

Konrad Sioui, grand chief of the Huron-Wendat Nation, said Norton always tried to focus on ways to connect Indigenous people across distinct nations and communities.

"It was always 'we', it was 'us'. Not 'I' or 'me,'" said Sioui. 

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also tweeted his condolences Saturday afternoon, writing that Norton was a "passionate advocate for his community and served with distinction." 

With files from Sarah Leavitt and Antoni Nerestant