By J.P. Antonacci
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
One of the wonders of the world was illuminated Wednesday night in tribute to a larger-than-life businessman from Six Nations of the Grand River.
Niagara Falls glowed blue and green between 6 and 11 p.m. in honour of Ken Hill, a multimillionaire cigarette magnate who died Monday of undisclosed causes at his Miami home. He was 62.
The falls are usually illuminated to celebrate days of significance and draw attention to worthy causes. Hill joins Canadian prime ministers, Nobel Peace Prize recipient Nelson Mandela and basketball superstar Kobe Bryant on the short list of individuals to be memorialized with a light show.
In their application to the Niagara Falls Illumination Board for this rare tribute, Hill’s family described him as “legendary, both on and off Six Nations” as the co-founder of cigarette manufacturer Grand River Enterprises, among dozens of business interests that employed thousands of people.
Niagara Falls Mayor Jim Diodati remembered Hill as “a strong advocate for Indigenous rights (and) a generous philanthropist.”
Hill’s Jukasa Studios sponsored the 2020 Niagara Music Awards last October.
“Kenny’s appreciation and love for music inspired him to build a world-class studio and sanctuary for artists and musicians to call home and produce lasting pieces of musical history,” the Ohsweken studio said in a statement.
“Kenny was always excited to meet new artists and was delighted to come into the studio and listen to what was being created. He had an undeniable presence that was felt from the moment he walked into a room. That presence will be sadly missed.”
Global superstars Willie Nelson, Steven Tyler and Snoop Dogg recorded at Jukasa, and Canadian indie rockers July Talk recorded their Juno Award-winning sophomore album, Touch, on the reserve in 2016.
Webster actor Emmanuel Lewis was a fixture at the studio.
“You were and still are a legend with the heart the size of a grizzly bear,” Stevie Salas, guitarist and executive producer of music documentary “RUMBLE: The Indians Who Rocked the World,” said of Hill on social media.
In a video tribute posted on Monday, rapper Fat Joe said he and Hill had met for lunch in Florida the week before his death.
“Kenny Hill is one of the sweetest, most humble people I ever met in my life. He is a gentle giant,” the five-time Grammy nominee said.
“Six Nations, Ontario, Canada, my heart goes out to you.”
Six Nations councillors extended their condolences to the Hill family, including Elected Chief Mark Hill, who is Ken Hill’s nephew.
Ken Hill served three terms on Six Nations Elected Council from January 1986 to December 1991.
“Always maintaining Six Nations as his home, Mr. Hill built portions of his industry at the very same corner where he grew up and lived,” read the statement from council.
“His ventures also gave back in the form of education and employment opportunities through the local Dreamcatcher Charitable Foundation. Our thoughts and prayers are with Chief Hill and his family while they try to deal with their devastating loss.”
According to its website, the Dreamcatcher Foundation provides funding to Indigenous recipients involved in education, sports, health care and the arts, with a particular focus on developing future Indigenous leaders by supporting youth and families in need.
Haldimand Mayor Ken Hewitt told the Sachem that Hill’s loss would be felt far and wide.
“It’s hard to fathom and perhaps appreciate the depth and reach he’s had in different communities, and employing so many different people and then helping so many families,” Hewitt said.
While Hill enjoyed a lavish lifestyle, he demonstrated his generosity by quietly paying off medical bills for those in need and sending three jet airplanes packed with relief aid to the hurricane-stricken Bahamas in 2019.
“Ken Hill was well known across both sides of the border and around the world. He was an advocate for Indigenous rights as well very helpful on and off the reservation,” his family’s statement to the Niagara Parks Commission read.
“He along with his best friend Jerry (Montour, co-founder of GRE) worked to help so many people around the world. He will always be loved and surely missed by all.”
Sports were a passion for Hill, who sponsored lacrosse, hockey and fast-pitch teams, and co-owned Jukasa Motor Speedway near Nelles Corners.
Lacrosse organizations across Canada expressed their condolences, with the Six Nations Snipers saying that Hill’s “impact on lacrosse has been felt locally and across the globe.”
Hill assumed control of the Six Nations Chiefs in 1993, after the death of his brother Erlind. The Chiefs promptly won three straight Mann Cups, adding three more national titles in the 2010s.
“Words cannot describe the sadness and disbelief that the team is in over the passing of our owner and leader Ken (KR) Hill,” said Chiefs presidents and general manager Duane Jacobs.
“Ken was like an older brother to me. He did so much for me and my family. He allowed me to run this team and is directly responsible for all the championships we’ve won. The players were treated well and all he ever wanted in return was championships.”
Hill ran the Brantford Golden Eagles junior B hockey team in early 1990s, and at the time of his death owned the junior B Caledonia ProFit Corvairs, sponsored by his Caledonia health club.
“Kenny wasn’t just an owner. He was a friend to all players, staff, volunteers and fans,” the Corvairs said in a statement.
“Kenny gave his all to make sure everyone was treated respectfully and set up to succeed both on and off the ice. He wanted to create something the community could always be proud of.”
Hill also sponsored the world-renowned Hill United Chiefs fast-pitch team and, with Montour, co-owned MontHill Golf and Country Club, south of Caledonia.
The business mogul earned millions of dollars tax-free annually, according to court filings, and his life was not without controversy.
As an exporter of cigarettes to clients worldwide _ including as the exclusive supplier of the German army _ Hill and Montour fought legal battles over taxation and licensing, and defended charges of trafficking contraband tobacco in the United States.
As a result, Hill’s relationship with Ottawa over the years was not always harmonious. But after his death, federal international trade minister Mary Ng offered her condolences to the family.
“I am saddened by the new of Ken Hill’s passing, a community leader, prominent entrepreneur and philanthropist from the Six Nations of the Grand River Territory” Ng tweeted.
In recent years Hill was involved in a contentious child and spousal support dispute with one of his former partners.
Earlier in the pandemic, he made the news after allegedly hosting a large party at his Six Nations mansion in defiance of COVID-19 restrictions.
J.P. Antonacci is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the Hamilton Spectator. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.