MONTREAL — Tributes are pouring in for Joseph Tokwiro Norton, the longtime grand chief of the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake and an influential Indigenous leader who died Friday.
Ghislain Picard, chief of the Assembly of First Nations of Quebec-Labrador, described Norton as a great leader whose wisdom will continue to inspire in a statement on Saturday.
“Grand Chief Norton holds a prominent place among the women and men who have maintained and enforced the values and traditions of the Mohawk Nation while ensuring its development,” Picard said.
“(His) interventions at the table of the Assembly of First Nations Quebec-Labrador have always been marked by insight and the search for consensus and have been greatly appreciated by all the chiefs.”
Norton suffered a fall at his home Friday and died later in hospital surrounded by his family, according to a statement from the council.
The council said his death came as a shock to his fellow council chiefs and the community.
Assembly of First Nations Chief Perry Bellegarde described Norton as “a dominant force in First Nations leadership for more than three decades” as well as a wonderful friend and mentor in a tweet on Saturday.
Norton was first elected to office in 1978 and was elected as Grand Chief in 1982, serving for 13 consecutive terms.
He retired in 2004 but returned to politics in 2015 and was midway through his second term. He’d gone on medical leave in mid-June, but was expected to return.
The council said he was known across North America as a fierce defender of Mohawk rights.
“Under his leadership Kahnawake saw unprecedented growth in many areas, particularly in economic development and the battle to restore and expand Kahnawake’s jurisdiction,” the council said in a release late Friday.
“The community’s direction did not always mesh with that of the provincial and federal governments — something that Mr. Norton took great pride in.
“He became known as a strong voice for Indigenous solidarity, defiance and determination. As a statesman, he carried a vision in continually striving for the advancement of Indigenous governance.”
Norton played a prominent role during the 1990 Oka crisis and more recently during rail blockades in solidarity with Wet’suwet’en First Nation earlier this year.
Artist and activist Ellen Gabriel remembered him as a “great statesman, a fluent Kanien’keha speaker and Turtle clan relative.”
“We always had honest conversations acknowledging each other’s political points of views: but he was gracious and respectful,” she wrote in a Facebook post.
In 2002, Norton was awarded a National Aboriginal Achievement Award for Public Service.
The council said he spent many years as an ironworker before venturing into politics and was also a past head coach of Kahnawake’s senior lacrosse team.
Provincial politicians, including Premier Francois Legault, offered condolences to Norton’s family.
Federal Justice Minister David Lametti said he was saddened by Norton’s death, describing him as a great statesman, devoted to Kahnawake and its development.
“Every time we met, I was impressed by his leadership,” Lametti, a Montreal MP, wrote on Twitter. “He dedicated his life to fiercely fight for the rights of Indigenous peoples.”
Montreal Mayor Valerie Plante called it a great loss on her Twitter account.
“Joe Norton has been an ally of Mtl, working towards reconciliation from the start,” Plante said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 15, 2020.