Kahnawake Grand Chief Joseph Norton, who served for over 30 years, has died
MONTREAL -- The longtime Mohawk Council of Kahnawake Grand Chief, Joseph Tokwiro Norton, has died.
Norton, who was 70 and had led his community for more than three decades, cumulatively, suffered a fall on Friday and died in hospital, according to a release from Kahnawake's council.
He calmly led his community through the Oka standoff in 1990 and often spoke nationally about Indigenous sovereignty. At home, meanwhile, he delivered a long list of concrete projects.
“Joe will be remembered for being the Grand Chief of Kahnawake, always,” said Mike Delisle, a fellow council member.
Norton was first elected to the community's council in 1978 and served as Grand Chief for 26 years. In 2015, he decided to return to politics after more than a decade away and was re-elected Grand Chief.
He grew up in Kahnawake, a community of around 8,000 people. As a young man he became an ironworker, like many Mohawk men, before becoming the "face of Kahnawake," said Delisle, who served as Grand Chief during the years that Norton stepped away from politics.
Norton doggedly stuck to big-picture principles but also worked through endless small, often bureaucratic details to deliver on those principles, said Delisle.
For example, when he was first elected in the 1970s, Kahnawake’s internal police or security force, called the Peacekeepers, existed but with less of an official role, said Delisle, who is still a council member.
As Grand Chief, Norton became determined to see the Peacekeepers’ position set in stone.
Kahnawake has “a longstanding, storied tradition of maintaining peace,” said Delisle. “We are a people of peace, though some people don't see us that way.”
Norton “felt very strongly that it needs to be our people to service our community in that capacity. No one knows us better than us,” said Delisle.
The Peacekeepers played an important role during the Oka standoff, and in the ensuing years, Norton brought the Quebec and Canadian governments together to sign a tripartite agreement ensuring Kahnawake would have policing autonomy, using the Peacekeepers' model. It was signed in 1995.
“It’s an extremely difficult job to police…your own community because we all know each other,” said Delisle. But Norton got the chance to see over the years how his work paid dividends.
“In the course of the Peacekeepers being there… shots have never been fired, guns have never been drawn” by any of its members, said Delisle, though they are armed.
One of Norton’s other ambitions was economic development, and he helped oversee a long list of projects that came to fruition, especially in the world of online services.
With the advent of the Internet in the 90s, he helped found a online gaming commission, and facilitated new legislation to allow it, that would give Kahnawake a chance to profit from the web.
It was followed by the creation of Mohawk Internet Technologies in 1999 and, more recently, a Kahnawake-based Internet Service Provider that, according to Norton’s LinkedIn page, employs 300 people directly and indirectly.
Norton also poured effort into young people. At one time he coached Kahnawake's senior lacrosse team, said the council's news release.
He was also one of a few remaining fluent speakers of the Mohawk language, said Delisle, and recently he had invested much time into projects to pass on the language to the community’s kids and young adults.
The language “has had a great revitalization, helped by him," said Delisle, "in his official capacity and his personal one.”
He continued speaking about Indigenous issues nationally, including this winter, when he advocated for the use of Indigenous peacekeeping-type forces to help manage conflict during the rail blockades.
But he put a lot of stock in the small details and relationships that slowly led to policymaking, said Delisle. Even very small municipalities around Kahnawake, on Montreal's South Shore, were often approached by him to work on local agreements, said Delisle.
"National and internationally...he was very successful in establishing tables to discuss jurisdictional matters," he said.
Norton stepped down recently for health reasons but returned to work at the beginning of July.
He leaves behind adult children and grandchildren.
Another Mohawk leader, Ellen Gabriel, wrote Friday night that she was "saddened and shocked" to hear of his death.
"He was a great statesman, a fluent Kanien’kéha speaker and Turtle clan relative," she wrote in a Facebook post, recalling how the two addressed the European Parliament together in 1990.
"We always had honest conversations acknowledging each other’s political points of views: but he was gracious and respectful," she wrote.
On Friday, many political leaders and other who worked with Norton began to post tributes to his work.