AKWESASNE – With bridges to both the United States and Canada closed, the Mohawk people of Akwesasne and their supporters gathered at the Canadian customs building on Cornwall Island spent most of Monday without land access to the outside world. But while the protest at the border crossing remained peaceful and generally upbeat, concern over how long the situation might last contributed to a sense of underlying tension.
The island the Mohawks call Kahwehnoke is part of their territory that spans the St. Lawrence River between New York state and the provinces of Ontario and Quebec. Leaders of the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne, the elected community government for the northern portion of territory, have vigorously protested a plan by the Canadian Border Service Agency to arm its border guards on the island on June 1. This date coincides with the implementation of new 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.
Shortly before midnight Sunday CBSA personnel quietly vacated their posts while about 200 Mohawks observed from across a parking lot. This triggered an automatic shutdown of the north span of the Three Nations Bridge Crossing to Ontario, followed by the blockage of the south span to the U.S. by the New York State police. Overnight, the Canadian and U.S. flags were removed from their staffs at the foot of the south span by persons unknown, leaving only an MCA flag raised. Residents cross this line frequently for work, school and recreation. They tolerate its presence but are resentful of the oppressive policies that come with it.
“As of today, we have not heard from the government of Canada regarding the closure,” said Tim Thompson, MCA Grand Chief, on Monday afternoon. “Our community is being squeezed to the limit at both ends. Our people are stranded on our territory.”
Despite a statement by Peter Van Loan, Canada’s Minister of Public Safety, warning the northern span 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 re-opened Monday evening and will remain so indefinitely.
Calling the bridge shutdown a “scare tactic,” former MCA Grand Chief and respected community leader Mike Mitchell reflected on the day’s events.
“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 had appointed people to come and learn about this community, this would not have happened.”