Coast Salish advocate Kat Norris remembered as 'pillar of beauty, grace and strength'

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Kat Norris speaks at an Idle No More protest and round dance she helped organize at Park Royal mall in West Vancouver, B.C., in December 2012. (David P. Ball/CBC - image credit)
Kat Norris speaks at an Idle No More protest and round dance she helped organize at Park Royal mall in West Vancouver, B.C., in December 2012. (David P. Ball/CBC - image credit)

Kat Norris, a tireless Coast Salish advocate and founder of the Indigenous Action Movement, has died at the age of 67, according to her family.

A member of the Lyackson First Nation on Vancouver Island, Norris was heavily involved in the Idle No More movement — helping plan and speak at B.C. rallies starting in late 2012 — but had spent decades fighting for Indigenous people's rights.

Norris, also known as Zu'comulwat, was often seen using her van to facilitate all kinds of events, her younger brother Sam Bob said.

"Her van was her office 2.0," said Bob, who lived in the same building as his sister, in an interview Sunday.

"If it wasn't filled with placards and banners and drums and tobacco offerings and chairs, tables and portable speakers for gatherings, she'd be filling it up for fry-bread giveaways or fundraisers."

'Our people are coming together'

Norris helped found Vancouver's first Aboriginal Day events, Bob said, and hosted urban powwows in the city along with frequent fry-bread giveaways in the Downtown Eastside.

She served as an elder at the neighbourhood's Kílala Lelum Health Centre.

When the Idle No More movement began in late 2012, she organized a round dance and drumming in West Vancouver and continued speaking out during the rapid expansion of the Canada-wide movement for Indigenous rights.

David P. Ball/CBC
David P. Ball/CBC

"Our people are coming together," she told the magazine Indian Country Today at the time. "This is something prophesied since time immemorial."

In 2017, Norris became the elder-in-residence for the Downtown Eastside Heart of the City Festival, with which she had been involved for nearly 15 years. She offered its opening and closing prayers last year, but because of failing health did it remotely from her own bed, the festival's artistic producer said.

"She always spoke about the importance of speaking up," said Terry Hunter. "And she saw her role was to speak up for her community.

"Lots of sadness right now around our household and our team about losing Kat."

Inspired by civil rights movement

Norris's activism, Bob said, was sparked after their family moved to Los Angeles in the late 1960s, after they were forced to attend several years at Kuper Island Residential School.

Bob believes their mother moved away from B.C. to escape residential school trauma and avoid the notorious Indian agents.

"My mom was also a survivor, and she had to fight hard to keep us together … when everything is aiming at pulling families apart," he said. "My sister Kat, that also became her philosophy.

"Right now, everybody says 'culture saves lives.' And I think that's what she was doing."

In Los Angeles, a teenage Norris was inspired by the civil rights movement, Chicano activists, outspoken Black Power radical Angela Davis, and later by the emerging American Indian Movement (AIM), a militant Indigenous rights organization that famously occupied the prison island of Alcatraz, Bob recalled.

Submitted by Sam Bob
Submitted by Sam Bob

She later became involved with AIM after returning to Vancouver as an adult. According to her brother, she corresponded with jailed AIM activist Leonard Peltier, who Amnesty International alleges was wrongfully convicted in 1975 of killing two FBI agents.

Norris's community work continued through the pandemic. In an interview with CFRO radio in early 2021, she said she was heartened by the volunteers who joined her in sewing thousands of face masks and giving out fry-bread.

"We're all struggling in different ways, we're struggling to make ends meet," she told the station.

"But we live on hope."

'Her teachings will live on'

In a statement on Twitter on Friday, the City of Vancouver said Norris was a "beloved member of the Indigenous community, who gave much love, support and care to everyone around her."

Vancouver-Mount Pleasant MP Jenny Kwan described Norris as a "a pillar of beauty, grace and strength" on Facebook, adding the activist will be "sorely missed but her teachings will live on."

Norris's family and friends are planning to hold a vigil in her memory at 5 p.m. PT Tuesday at Grandview Park in East Vancouver.

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