AKWESASNE, N.Y. – Melinda Walk needs her Canadian customers back – so much so that she’s willing to give them full value for their currency at her convenience store-gas station just over the U.S.-Canadian border, even at a loss of 12 cents on the dollar.
Walk is among border merchants caught in a standoff between Canadian Mohawks and the Canadian government over the arming of border guards stationed at the Cornwall Island Customs House, which sits on reservation land. A Mohawk protest in late May brought a bridge shutdown by Canadian authorities and only a trickle of local traffic is getting through.
“I’m willing to take a little bit of a loss to coax them back,” she said. “It’s not much, but I have to do something. The bridge closing has cost me a huge chunk of business.”
Her store sits on the American side of the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation, less than a mile from the Three Nations Bridge Crossing, which spans the St. Lawrence River and connects New York with Kahwehnoke (Cornwall Island) and Cornwall, an industrial port city of 45,000 people on Canada’s mainland.
The Mohawks accuse Canada of violating their tribal sovereignty by arming the government guards without their permission.
“For months, they have ignored our request for consultation – a basic right for a sovereign nation,” said Brendan White, a spokesman for the Canadian Mohawk Council
A small contingent of protesters has set up camp at the bridge. About 200 other Indians arrived last week from across Canada to lend their support to the protest.
“It is our land. We don’t want any more guns,” White said. “Our protest will remain peaceful, but we aren’t going to leave until the Canadian government agrees to our demand.”
The Canadian government closed the two-span bridge just before midnight on May 31 when about 400 Canadian Mohawks rallied at the Canadian Customs house on Kahwehnoke. Canadian Mohawks have complained to the government in the past about abusive behavior and racial profiling by the guards.
Since then, Cornwall police monitor one side, allowing residents, service workers, deliveries and emergency vehicles through; New York state troopers guard the other side.
Arming Canadian border guards is part of a 2006 Conservative election campaign promise to increase the security of the Canadian border. About 900 border guards have been armed since the effort began in August. The Cornwall station is the only one in Canada on Indian land, White said.
The United States arms its border guards but the U.S. customs station at Massena isn’t on Mohawk land.
Canadian Federal Public Safety Minister Peter Van Loan has threatened to shut down the crossing permanently if the dispute can’t be resolved. A public safety spokesman said the issue is one of national security and is not negotiable.
With negotiations at a standstill, the Canadian Mohawks have asked the Canadian federal courts to intervene.
The economic losses mount for Walk and most of the other nearly 200 businesses at Akwesasne, a Mohawk community of about 12,000 residents spread over more than 26,000 mostly forested acres that includes reservations on both sides of the U.S.-Canadian border.
With the bridge closed, Americans can’t go to Canada to shop with the stronger U.S. dollar; Canadians can’t come to St. Regis to gamble and buy cheaper cigarettes and gas.
In Cornwall, merchants say they’re losing about $10,000 a day. On the Canadian reservation, several shops have closed and others have laid off workers.
On the American side, business is down more than 20 percent since the closure, and the losses are growing deeper the longer it continues, said David Staddon, a spokesman for the St. Regis tribe. About one-third of reservation business comes from Canada, he said.
The impact is even more evident at the Akwesasne Mohawk Casino, where business has fallen by 25 percent, and at the Mohawk Bingo Palace, where it’s down more than 30 percent. The two tribal-owned gaming facilities employ 800 workers and help make the tribe the area’s largest employer.
“This has hit us hard. We’re just coming into the peak season for our gaming businesses,” said Chief James Ransom. “We haven’t had to lay off any workers yet, but that’s what we’re looking at, if this continues.”
A loss of gaming revenue also hurts New York state and Franklin and St. Lawrence counties, which share in the annual profits, Ransom said. Last year, that was $13 million.
The impact has been no less in neighboring Massena, a wearied village of about 11,000, five miles east of the bridge.
Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Michael Gleason said most of the village’s businesses have felt the impact. Canadian customers make up about 30 percent to 40 percent of sales for local businesses.
“It’s terrible and it gets more brutal each day it goes on,” said Gleason, adding that most businesses have seen sales plunge 25 percent to 50 percent. “... and when this ends, it’s going to cost them money to try and recapture that lost business.”
Gleason said for now most businesses are cutting employees’ hours to try to deal with the slowdown.
Trombino’s Restaurant is one of those businesses. Owner Steve Nadeau said he’s not sure how much longer he can operate before he will have to begin laying off some of his 14 employees.
“If you don’t have a lot of customers, you don’t need a lot of workers,” Nadeau said.
“This just came out of the blue. I’m not sure how many more economic blows this community can handle,” he added.
Over the past year, Massena has lost about 1,300 jobs with the closing of its GM parts factory and the shutdown of one of two smelters at the local Alcoa plant. Unemployment in the mostly rural county is over 9 percent.
The Massena-Cornwall crossing is the sixth busiest among the 124 crossing points stretched out along the U.S.-Canadian border, according to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency. The federal government just finished a $60 million upgrade of the Massena point of entry station, expanding and modernizing it. Mohawk leaders say tribal members account for 70 percent of the crossings at Massena.
There are 17 other crossing points in upstate New York. The closest is a road into Quebec at Fort Covington, 10 miles to the east that is mostly used by local residents. For commercial traffic and travelers, the Ogdensburg-Prescott Bridge is 30 miles to the east.
Earlier this month, U.S. Sens. Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand wrote a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, urging them to intervene in the dispute.
Homeland Security officials have remained neutral and declined to comment on what they see as a dispute between two sovereign governments. Clinton spoke with Canadian officials but with no resolution, a Schumer aide said.
While the St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Council supports the Canadian tribe’s efforts at negotiation, it has remained neutral on whether Canadian Border Service guards should be armed.
“We are looking to the residents of Cornwall Island and the membership of the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne to make that determination. They are the ones who are most directly affected,” Ransom said.
However, a tribal poll showed about 60 percent of the Mohawks living on the American side had no objections to Canadian border guards carrying guns, Ransom said.
“People want to be supportive but for some the cost is becoming too great,” Ransom said.
Any reluctance to more weapons is understandable. The reservation was ripped apart by internal violence in the early 1990s when pro- and anti-gambling forces clashed and two people were killed in gun battles.
Walk holds a view typical of many St. Regis residents.
“We are all Mohawk so we share their plight. They are within their rights to want to keep out more guns,” she said.
“But do I want the bridge reopened? Yes. Absolutely. My employees have families. I have three children.”
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