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A voice from the Akwesasne border standoff: ‘Start listening to Mohawk people’

CORNWALL, Ontario – For three weeks the border crossing that spans the St. Lawrence River between Cornwall, Ontario and Massena, N.Y. has been inoperable. On the north side, Canadian authorities have blockaded the Three Nations Bridge Crossing, while their U.S. equivalents do the same on the south shore of the river. On the island in the middle stands a community in protest.

The community of Akwesasne, part of the Kanienkehaka (Mohawk) Nation, has unified in resistance to the Canadian government’s plan to arm its border guards with 9mm pistols. The guns were set to appear June 1, but Canadian Border Services Agency guards walked off their posts at midnight May 31 in response to a non-violent protest by members of the Akwesasne community. Since then the bridges have been sealed and the feds have refused to speak with community representatives.

Only Akwesasne community members are being permitted to cross the north bridge, while New York State police maintain a total blockade from the south. After being denied entrance to the community by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and Cornwall Police, the following interview with Sakoietah, a representative of Akwesasne’s Men’s Traditional Council, was conducted by telephone.

Jesse Freeston: What is the greatest misconception about the current dispute that is being put forward in the media?

Sakoietah: I guess the biggest misconception has been about the blocking of the bridges. A lot of the coverage leads you to believe that we, meaning the people, were blocking the roads, and that wasn’t the truth. And it still isn’t the truth. None of us are stopping anybody from traveling, north or south.

JF: For many this dispute will be difficult to understand, because most people do not have an international border running through their community. How did a border end up in the middle of your community?

S: You have to look at before this actual border came into our territory. It goes back to when the U.S. and Britain signed the Jay Treaty. Article 3 of the Jay Treaty said that we would be allowed to travel back and forth. And our people perceived that border line as being 10 feet above our heads, it didn’t matter to our people that it was there, this was a line dispute between Britain and the U.S., and this is how they settled that dispute. Article 3 allows for us to pass through our own country, unhindered. This goes way back before the construction of the border. The physical building and officers came into effect in the early 1950s. That’s the reason our people fight, because we don’t actually believe that there is a border here. This physical thing that sits here is not for us, it’s for the Canadian public and the U.S. public.

JF: How did the community arrive at the decision to oppose the arming of the guards?

S: The movement here is a people’s movement; it doesn’t follow any kind of council. I sit on the Men’s Council, but we’re not the leadership. This is why the people are so resolved. They’re not going to budge on this issue. Continually, the people have told Canada and the CBSA that the guns will not be allowed within our territory. Our situation is unique, the guard post sits in our territory, in a residential area, and there have been a lot of problems because of that. There are a lot of cases of abuse that are in court right now, and a lot of the people felt that if the arming of the border guards were to happen, it would create the potential for something drastic to happen.

JF: What is your relationship like with the local Canadian settler population? What has been their response to the dispute?

S: We have a good relationship with part of the population and a bad one with another part of the population. A lot of people feel that the law should be applied to everybody regardless of who you are. But the fact is that we are a nation, and we have our own laws. If we were to apply it to them, would they be happy with that?

The Mohawk nation, and in fact the whole Haudenosaunee, or Six Nations Confederacy, signed a treaty known as the Two Row Wampum, and we apply that with any foreign nation or country that we come into contact with. The Two Row Wampum simply explains that we are two rows that travel down the same path together, their ship and our canoe. We travel side by side in this life. The ship has its own laws and customs and our canoe has its own laws and customs. Neither one is to set foot in the other in order to try and steer it.

JF: What has been the response from other original people communities?

S: We have received a lot of support from all over, not only other Mohawk communities but from all over the country. I believe everybody is becoming aware about what is happening here. Just the other night here with the people, a woman from British Columbia said that the people of her nation are aware and they’re burning a fire in support of us. So I think that the news is getting out all over even though the media is blacking out our voice and trying to present what the government of Canada wants to say.

JF: Speaking of the media, I want to give you an opportunity to respond to a couple of the arguments we are seeing in the reporting; the first being that ‘you don’t have anything to worry about with armed guards unless you are doing something wrong.’

S: The fact is that there is a record of mistreatment of our people over the years. And the issue didn’t just arrive. Forty years ago, they blocked the bridge in the same location. In 40 years nothing has changed, the abuse has happened over and over. It seems to happen more and more often. CBSA doesn’t seem to understand, and Canadians don’t seem to understand who we are and what we are. We are not lawless people here. We are in fact the most law-abiding people. But we abide by our laws. To push a foreign entity on us, to push a foreign law on us and continually abuse our people. To put our young people in this so-called justice system, for committing what they call a crime. This is important to understand for those who say that if we weren’t committing crimes we would have nothing to worry about. The physical abuse is happening; and could get worse with weapons.

JF: Could you give us an example of the abuse?

S: A grandma from our sister community Kahnawake was crossing, and because of a so-called lack of cooperation she was physically abused. And that is being looked at by the Human Rights Tribunal right now. My own son was involved in an incident where he was abused, charged and eventually acquitted. There are a lot of different incidents, piles and piles of reports that have been given to Mohawk Council and to the Traditional Men’s Council, detailing the abuse that is happening here.

JF: Another argument we see in the papers is that ‘the U.S. guards have been armed for years and there has never been a problem.’

S: That is true. This issue is bigger than the gun issue. The issue is that these buildings sit within our territory. And laws imposed on us in any way, whether it’s guns or Canadian law, must be questioned. Some of our people travel this so-called border seven to 10 times per day. Our families are here, our jobs are here. Yes, the U.S. customs has guns, but they never asked us whether or not they could have guns. The U.S. [has spent] millions of dollars to build a big [Customs and Border Protection] building across the way. For what? Seventy percent of the traffic at this border is our people. Are those holding cells that they’re building for us? The issue over there hasn’t been addressed as of yet, but it will be.

JF: Clearly this issue goes quite a bit deeper than arming the border guards. Have you proposed a long-term solution to the problems created by the border?

S: That would have to be a decision by the people. Right now we are all resolved to saying there will be no weapons here. The ball is in the court of Canada and Public Safety Minister Peter Van Loan. Van Loan says that border guards will not return here unless they’re armed, and the Mohawk community should realize that they have no say in this because it’s a Canadian law that has been enacted. The people will not allow guns here, so if it’s the case that border guards won’t be here, then they won’t be here. I mean, in the last week it’s been very nice here without the border guards, no problems. The only problems have been the police blockades on the Canadian and U.S. sides.

JF: What can people do to support your community in this dispute?

S: The main thing is to start asking the questions that we are talking about. Talk to your MPs and elected leadership and ask them these questions. Why isn’t the truth getting out? Why doesn’t the government come to Akwesasne and speak with the people? We need that kind of support. Hopefully there will be a peaceful resolution to this, but the Mohawk people are resolved to the fact that they’re going to stand as long as it takes. We hope that the public can bear with us, as I said we’re not the ones who blocked access to anywhere, and we didn’t overtake a building and throw people out. They simply left their post. And people want to help us out? Start getting out the truth, talk to the people you put in office, and start listening to what Mohawk people are saying.

Jesse Freeston is an independent journalist, currently working with The Real News Network.