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Hundreds of people, including political figures and dignitaries, arrived in Kahnawake on Wednesday to pay tribute and say goodbye to one of the most influential Indigenous leaders in the world, the late Mohawk Council of Kahnawake (MCK) grand chief Joseph Tokwiro Norton.
The MCK announced the passing of the grand chief last Friday (August 14) afternoon and said that he suffered a fall at his home and was rushed to the hospital in critical condition, where he later passed away surrounded by his family at approximately 8:30 p.m. Norton was 70.
Large tents were erected in front of the Kahnawake Sports Complex for the funeral. People lined up to pay their respects and honour a man who dedicated his life to advancing Kahnawake’s jurisdiction and economic prosperity.
He is remembered for his leadership as a key negotiator during the 1990 Oka Crisis, which thrusted him into the international political stage.
The late grand chief was later honoured with a National Aboriginal Achievement Award (now known as Indspire) for Public Service in 2002 for his role in the crisis.
Many across Turtle Island view him as a defender of Indigenous rights.
As the large Haudenosaunee Confederacy flag flew at half-staff, many of his friends and colleagues gave speeches, including the minister of Indigenous Services Marc Miller, who called Norton a “mentor.”
“When I found out Friday, I was stunned,” said Miller. “I guess, in a weird way, I have been reflective ever since. My condolences to the community and his family are first and foremost. I realized what I wanted to say about his dedication to peace – the pride he had in the community.
“But also, the hard work he put into it. The last six months have been really trying for everyone in Canada, whether it is COVID-19, but also during the Wet’suwet’en solidarity movement. We were in constant communication, and that is something that not every leader is dedicated that way to their people. I think that is a testament of who Joe was and what he wanted to see achieved,” continued Miller.
The chief of the Assembly of First Nations of Quebec and Labrador, Ghislain Picard, also spoke and said that he had known Norton for over 30 years and credits him for his dedication to not only Kahnawake, but to all Indigenous communities across Turtle Island.
“Upon his return (to politics) I would say that he probably saw that things had really stood still and there were still many challenges for our people as a collective, and the fact that I always looked at him as a representative of a nation that can do it on its own, but instead his thinking was ‘we’ll do it together, we won’t leave anybody behind.’ I think this is certainly the legacy that he leaves behind,” said Picard.
During the tribute, veterans from the Royal Canadian Legion Mohawk Branch 219 fired volley shots as a salute to the grand chief.
Norton, a fluent Kanien’kéha speaker, was first elected to MCK in 1978 and became grand chief in 1982. He served 13 consecutive terms as grand chief until his retirement in 2004.
Following his retirement, he started a career in the private sector and founded Mohawk Internet Technologies. Norton also served on many other boards throughout his life.
He returned to politics in 2015 and was elected grand chief again, with a re-election, unopposed, in 2018.
Prior to his election into council, Norton was an ironworker for many years.
In June, Norton had a pacemaker put in, but according to MCK political attaché Joe Delaronde, he was doing fine and had been present during the last council meeting on August 10.
During his medical leave, MCK chief Gina Deer was put in charge of the office.
“We gathered at MCK, those who were able to come and lend each other support, as we waited to hear the official news, which we got just after 9 p.m. that night,” said Deer.
Deer explained that Norton cared about advancing jurisdiction. “That was behind everything he did, whether it was the Peacekeeper Law, the Membership Law, any of the laws that we have today that he worked on was about asserting jurisdiction and being in charge of our own affairs,” she said.
“As the years went on and he accomplished those things. He wanted financial independence, and that was also important to him,” said Deer.
Deer, who worked closely with Norton after joining council in 2012, said he was born to be the leader, and recounted many of his recent accomplishments, including getting meetings with the minister of finance for Quebec Carlos Leitão and the federal minister of justice David Lametti.
“It is unprecedented,” she said. “No by-election will be held. I am operating as we have in the past in Joe’s absence when he has asked me to step in. I will continue to do that role until such time as that changes. But at this point I will conduct myself as though Joe is away from the office and continue on as I have in the past because for me, for the duration of this term, Joseph Tokwiro Norton is going to be the grand chief, whether he is physically here or not,” she said.
MCK suspended all political activities for a period of 10 days following his passing as a gesture of respect for the grand chief.
Others who gave speeches and told stories about Norton included former council chief Peggy Mayo-Standup and Murray Marshall from the Kahnawake Gaming Commission.
“There are some people who seem to be chosen, but you always have to answer the call,” said MCK chief Ross Montour.
“It was something in Joe, and he answered that call. And over a period of time, he would look at the challenges. Everybody goes to 1990, and that is really when he got a certain notice across Turtle Island because that was a signal event in our history, and the history of this country that has spread across the world.
“He responded with a calm, cool-headed intervention that maintained peace, but held strong, and that is the kind of leader he was. Even to his end, it was always on his mind. He would say there is so much work that has to be done. Nobody can fill his shoes. Not in the way he fit them.” said Montour.
Montour added that he would like council to continue to carry forward with his vision for the current mandate.
Joe Delaronde said that Norton was good friends with his father Joe Delaronde Sr. and would visit him when he was in the hospital.
“I think that we are in for some challenges, to be honest. It took a very special person,” said Delaronde. “That special person being Joe Norton to always find a middle ground. Joe Norton was not just a grand chief; he was a statesman and a very special man. They don’t come along very often, maybe once in a lifetime. To have the gift that he had and share it with this community.”
At 11 a.m., a traditional ceremony was held with Joe McGregor, who said prayers in Kanien’kéha followed by words from Charlie Patton.
Former grand chief Mike Delisle said that the news came as a shock and that he was in mourning like the rest of Kahnawake.
“It’s a big loss that the community will feel for a long time. His legacy was firmly entrenched long before he came back as the face and voice of not only our community, but everyone in Indigenous communities during 1990 and shortly thereafter. Many accomplishments, too many to mention. Agreements with Canada, Quebec and other Indigenous communities, he was renowned worldwide. He will be missed,” said Delisle.
On August 15, prime minister Justin Trudeau tweeted about the grand chief’s passing and said that he leaves behind a “remarkable legacy.”
Samantha Montour-Cross, who was the grand chief’s executive assistant since his return in 2015, said Norton was always finding ways to work towards the betterment of the community and to enhance what was already in place.
“He would often share stories about his grandsons, his travels, stories from his ironworking days, and he would also share stories of my baba with me, which was always very special,” said Montour-Cross.
“He knew so much – his knowledge and wisdom were always something I admired. I’m going to miss him dearly. Our community has suffered a tremendous loss. The office and the community will not be the same without him.”
Nearing the end of the funeral, everyone present got the opportunity to approach the grand chief and say their final goodbyes.
“How do you say that out loud ‘Joe Norton has passed?’” said Serge Otsi Simon, the grand chief of Kanesatake. “It is a little surreal. It is not something you expect.”
“Then later, I started thinking about what does Kahnawake look like without Joe Norton. What is the Iroquois Caucus going to look like without him there? He has had an influence in just about every level of Mohawk governance over a period of 30 years, and it is kind of hard to wrap your mind around that,” continued Simon.
The grand chief’s casket was hoisted onto a purple carriage drawn by two black horses and escorted by the Kahnawake Peacekeepers in full uniform.
A procession took place on the Old Malone Highway and ended at the Protestant cemetery, where he was laid to rest.