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Mohawks continue struggle at border

AKWESASNE – The people of the Mohawk territory of Akwesasne remain steadfast in their resistance of new border policies, maintaining a peaceful protest site and steadily working to gain support from other Indian nations and organizations.

The community is located on the St. Lawrence River, at the juncture of New York State and the provinces of Ontario and Quebec.

At issue is the arming of Canadian Border Service Agency officers with 9 mm handguns, a policy which was to take effect June 1. Residents of the island, which Mohawks call Kahwehnoke, established a protest site last month near the Canadian customs building and planted signs and nation flags along the road appealing to motorists to “Honk for no guns.” In the last hours of May, the gathering swelled to more than 300 as a small group of CBSA agents voluntarily departed the building minutes before midnight, citing safety concerns.

Ron Moran, the national president of the Customs and Immigration Union, said the agents were intimidated by some protesters whose faces were covered by scarves. Some men, part of a small group of "Warriors," wore camouflage and disguised their faces. But so did many women, due to the unseasonably cold, 40-degree night.

Moran said June 2 there was currently not a plan to allow the officers to return to the customs house on the island. “I don’t think there’s any reason to start risking that level of potential injury or loss of life. So, as it stands, it’s going to remain closed and that’s to the detriment primarily of the people on the Akwesasne reserve.”

The departure of the customs agents prompted the CBSA to immediately close down both spans of the Three Nations Bridge Crossing connecting the island to the U.S. and Canada. The north span was reopened June 1 to island residents only so they could buy groceries and keep medical appointments.

There is no access from the American side to the island, except by boat, separating many families and forcing local traffic to the next port of entry an hour’s drive away. Schools were closed for three days while Mohawk officials devised a school schedule that did not require border crossing by busses, administrations or students. Local non-Native media have been denied access to the protest site since June 1. The Akwesasne community and surrounding area is staying informed of developments via local Mohawk radio and regular updates by the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne, which established an emergency command center shortly after negotiations with Canada broke down.

Talks between Mohawk leaders and Canadian officials have resumed, but progress is slow. The immediate focus is on the re-opening of the south span crossing. People determined to cross the border have opted to drive the extra distance or catch a ride on one of the many water vessels made available by community members. Since crossing the border is a routine event for the people of Akwesasne local economies are sure to be negatively affected, although evidence is only anecdotal at this point.

Larger issue

Many Mohawks say the proposed weapons are but one issue they have with the presence of the international border that was imposed upon them by foreign entities.

For years, Mohawks have experienced harassment at Canadian and U.S. customs, located at the foot of each bridge. They say the weapons policy will make an already tense situation potentially volatile.

“The bottom line is that there has been racial profiling here and it’s got to stop,” MCA Grand Chief Tim Thompson said. “There have been more than 300 complaints here over the past year-and-a-half. That’s racial profiling.”

The complaints range from refusal by border officials of “red” cards, a red-colored photo identification issued by the Haudenosaunee Grand Council in Onondaga acknowledging the right of free passage as recognized by the Jay Treaty, to strip searches of young people and women. According to MCA, two complaints have been filed with the Canadian Human Rights Commission.

“We have to remind Washington that there are treaty obligations, remind Canada there are aboriginal rights obligations,” said former Mohawk Council of Akwesasne Grand Chief Mike Mitchell. “There’s no other situation that exists like this anywhere in North America, so you have to find exceptional ways to solve the problem.”

The island the Mohawks call Kahwehnoke is part of their territory that spans the St. Lawrence River between New York and the provinces of Ontario and Quebec. MCA, the elected community government for the northern portion of territory, has led the island protest for a month. June 1 coincides with the implementation of new, stringent identification requirements of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative and a recent partnership between the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and Canada’s Ministry of Public Safety to coordinate resources at border crossings.

On June 1, Canadian Minister of Public Safety Peter Van Loan said the bridge to Canada would remain closed until “the local Mohawk band indicates they’re willing to accept the border officers being armed as is government policy.”

The bridge shutdown is a “scare tactic,” said Mitchell, a leader of previous efforts to preserve Indian border crossing rights at Akwesasne.

“Unfortunately, both governments in the U.S. and Canada are new governments,” Mitchell said. “They are not very well aware of indigenous issues. They think one size fits all, but this is a unique situation. … If the minister [of public safety] had appointed people to come and learn about this community, this would not have happened.”

The Canadian customs and immigration post at Akwesasne is the only land-border crossing that is located on a Native reserve. On Kahwehnoke, the customs house is situated in the middle of a residential area, with shops, homes and a playground within eyesight and easy walking distance. Across the southern span, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection land port of entry is located at the edge of Akwesasne. A new, larger CBP facility has been under construction for the past year and is near completion.

For decades, the people of Akwesasne say they have put up with traffic delays, waits of up to an hour, an increased police presence and harassment by border agents. They have long considered the international border an invisible line that is “10 feet above” their heads.

Efforts to maintain peace and diplomacy are at the forefront of this Native community’s continuing struggle to protect their inherent rights. Four “peacekeepers” were sent by the Mohawk Nation Council of Chiefs and Clan Mothers to monitor the protest and keep people calm. “They are all well-respected community members who are level-headed and capable,” St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Chief James Ransom said.

The unity among Akwesasne leadership in this struggle is not going unnoticed by community members. And that’s a good thing, according to Mitchell.

“The test for Akwesasne is to survive, to survive this issue and be united to see it through.”

Tom Wanamaker contributed to this report.