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Looking back on a life well-lived

(Courtesy Orenda Curotte)

“If you ask anybody in Kahnawake who Josie Curotte was, they will answer ‘the judge,’” said Josie’s daughter, Orenda Boucher-Curotte. “It was what she was known for,” added her older brother, Karonhiio Curotte.

Josephine Patricia Kawennihe Curotte passed away suddenly from a suspected heart attack at the age of 67 on July 13.

She left behind her two kids and four grandchildren, along with many other family members.

But for those who knew her personally, she also left behind a legacy the size of Kahnawake.

Josie was a justice of the peace for 20 years in this community. But she also simultaneously worked many years in homecare caring for elders and spent over 15 years working for Corrections Canada developing programs for Indigenous inmates.

Josie was indeed a force to be reckoned with, said her kids, and she lived life on her own terms.

Headstrong, intelligent, resilient, stubborn, a badass, tough – just a few of the words her family members used to describe her character.

And as they sat together and recounted her life story with The Eastern Door recently, all those words seemed very much appropriate and in tune with whom Josie was.

Josie was born in Kahnawake to John Thioronhiate Curotte and Grace Osontiio Diabo in 1952.

Growing up, she was a daddy’s girl and a tomboy who could not stand still for very long. She had four brothers and sisters, and according to Orenda, “she had the middle child syndrome.”

Josie was rebellious in her youth and was known as a bit of a troublemaker.

Her relationship with education was complicated. She struggled in high school and never graduated.

“She got kicked out of Lachine High because she refused to take showers with the non-Native girls because they would always do things to make her uncomfortable or make fun of her. So she flatly refused,” said Orenda.

“She then got kicked out of Bishop Whelan for pretending to be catholic and for refusing to do math.”

When the teacher asked Josie why she refused to do math, she answered that she wasn’t catholic, and they sent her home.

To get Josie into a good school, her parents pretended to be catholic, but Josie was not having it.

“They wouldn’t let her back in school because she was outed as a heathen,” said Orenda, laughing.

“She also got busted trying to go to Woodstock when she was 17. She got tickets. She and her friend got into the truck to leave, and bubba busted them before they made it out of the tunnel,” she said.

Karonhiio said that she was also an Indian day school survivor and she had filled out the paperwork to get compensation prior to her death.

Josie left the school system after that. She only learned how to read at age 20.

Josie married her first husband, John Gabriel, from Kanesatake at a Longhouse in Akwesasne. A year later, she had her first child and only son, Karonhiio. The marriage lasted about a year. After the marriage dissolved, Karonhiio moved in and was raised by his maternal grandparents.

“I did not know that I had a sister until I was about 10 years old. I grew up with my mother, but she was more like a sister,” said Karonhiio.

Sometime later, Josie met Orenda’s dad, and they were together for about nine years before finally separating when her daughter was seven.

“My first memory is actually the day that she left my dad. He was really not mentally well. He was very abusive. And she survived that and took me out of that house. And then it was really just she and I,” said Orenda.

Orenda said that growing up, her mom never had money. She cleaned houses for a living but that she always found a way to put a roof over their heads.

At 31, Josie decided to give education another shot. She first enrolled at Dawson College and completed her DEC in general social science. She then went to Concordia and studied anthropology, graduating in 1995.

“I think she wanted to find a way out of poverty. Until then, she was cleaning houses for a living, and it wasn’t enough to feed us, and I think she saw education as a way out,” said her daughter.

“She raised me to be really independent because she was going to school full-time and working full-time, and she had me. She didn’t have a license, so she had to take the bus. She was never home. She taught me how to cook at an early age, how to take care of myself,” she said.

Orenda said her mom really enjoyed studying anthropology and she was beloved by both her professors and fellow students.

“Her professors really got her mind thinking about the things that she could do. It was really the first time that anybody had ever said to her that she was really smart and that she could really do these things. I think that was attractive to her,” said Orenda.

“She would tell people that she wanted a degree in anthropology because she wanted to study white people in their natural habitat,” said Karonhiio, cracking a laugh.

“For her, education was the most important thing. But I think that the thing that she was most proud of was the fact that both of her kids never got into trouble,” said Orenda. “She would always say my son is a fireman, and my daughter is a university professor. She was really proud of those things, that she had two pretty stand up kids.”

According to her children, Josie truly loved being a justice of the peace. She played that role at Karonhiio’s wedding ceremony.

“She loved being a judge. She called herself the hanging judge,” he said.

And she loved her community too.

On top of working as a justice of the peace and taking care of the elderly in homecare, Josie also volunteered on many different boards and committees throughout her life. She was the education chair for many years.

Josie overcame trauma and poverty to become a respected member of her community.

“She came into any room, and she just dominated that room with her voice because she was really loud. There was just something about her,” said Orenda.

“People just followed her. Sometimes she would be sitting somewhere, and people would just walk up to her and start talking to her. She loved to tell stories. My grandfather was the same way. That is where she got it from,” said Karonhiio.

The siblings said that each time one of her grandchildren was born, she was over the moon. Her family was the most important thing in her life.

Josie also loved spicy food, black and white movies and was obsessed with Star Trek.

Over 200 people showed up at her funeral.

“My mother was the matriarch of our family and at least for me, her leaving left a very huge hole. She taught me a lot about being strong and resilient, but she didn’t teach me how to live without her,” said Orenda.

Orenda is currently in the early stages of creating a scholarship in her mother’s honour, which will be called, “The Curotte Scholarship for single parents that return to school,” said Orenda.

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