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Staring down the border

The Daily’s Niko Block investigates First Nations non-violent resistance in Akwesasne

Since 9/11, communities along Canada’s southern border have been forced to accommodate an ever-expanding apparatus of surveillance, physical barriers, and military technology. The project, at its most extravagant, involves an MQ-Predator B unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), a high-tech Aerostat surveillance balloon, and infrared- and radar-equipped surveillance towers. Residents of communities accustomed to casual border crossings across the country have occasionally expressed their discomfort with the more stringent regimentation of their movements, the increasingly intrusive inspections of their vehicles, and the hapless slide their businesses have taken, but none have resisted the ongoing militarization of the border as vehemently as the Native community of Akwesasne.

Lying at the juncture of Quebec, Ontario, and New York state, Akwesasne is commonly referred to as the “jurisdictional nightmare” of Canadian customs and immigration. Its residents have long been uneasy with the presence of Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) guards on their territory, and have chronically filed complaints of racial profiling at the border crossing on Cornwall Island.

In compliance with a 2006 decision by the Ministry of Public Safety, CBSA guards at Akwesasne were slated to be equipped with firearms on June 1. Tensions on the reserve mounted as the deadline approached. The Mohawk Council of Akwesasne (MCA), which is the federally-recognized local government on the Canadian side of the reserve, demanded that the Ministry either call off or defer the arming of the guards. Meanwhile, the Mohawk Warriors Society became increasingly vocal in their denunciation of what they considered a violation of their territorial sovereignty, and reportedly threatened to storm the CBSA compound if the plan went ahead.

On May 31, 400 members of the community had amassed around the customs building and lit six bonfires outside the compound, representing the six nations of the Iroquois confederacy. At 10 minutes before midnight, the CBSA guards closed up shop and drove off the island.

“We gave [CBSA guards] three letters of what people wanted, which was no guns, and when [MCA] delivered the third one they told [the guards] that [MCA] couldn’t guarantee their safety anymore,” said Beverly Pyke, an Akwesasne-born woman in her early sixties and an alumna of McGill’s School of Education. “We were surprised; nobody expected them to walk out.”

In the wake of the CBSA’s departure, the community staged a celebration and mounted the flags of the Iroquois Confederacy, the Mohawk Warriors Society, and the Two-Row Wampum onto the flagpoles outside the compound.

This protest is what the CBSA’s union subsequently described in a press release as “a concerted act of terrorism.”

MCA’s leadership opened negotiations with CBSA almost immediately, though in response to the protest Ron Moran, president of CBSA’s union, stated from his Ottawa Office that “the Customs and Immigration Union (CIU) has taken a categorical position and will never allow its members to work at the Cornwall Border-Crossing unarmed again.”

Boat crossings at Akwesasne are part of a black market pipeline that accounts for 75 per cent of the contraband tobacco and a swathe of the drugs and weapons entering Canada. These activities have exacerbated the pre-existing tensions between the CBSA and the Mohawk community. Federal law enforcement started patrolling the St. Lawrence for contraband in speedboats for the first time last winter, putting a significant squeeze on the trade.

Since the CBSA opened a new checkpoint at the foot of the bridge in Cornwall on July 13, local Mohawks have seen the security complex surrounding the island expand to an unprecedented level. In addition to more rigorous vehicle searches at the CBSA checkpoint since then, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection has launched a UAV to monitor the river.

The abandoned customs building lies at the intersection of Island and International roads, the latter of which connects to Cornwall Island’s two bridges. To the south the suspension bridge leading to New York state punctuates the sparsely forested landscape. A billboard facing north urges passers-by to “Win Big at the Akwesasne Mohawk Casino” and features an ecstatic white woman brandishing a fan of hundred dollar bills. The obverse side reminds patrons to drive safely.

On the southwest corner is the Akwesasne People’s Fire, where a group of middle-aged and elderly activists, including Pyke, run a flea market and maintain the bonfire that has been burning since May 1.

“It took a lot of soul-searching to come here and be involved, and I’m just happy that I did it. I just hope that it comes to a good result in the end,” said Pyke as we sat down amidst the detritus of the flea market.

She went on to say that the protests during the summer have united the community in a way she had not seen in the two decades since violence broke out in 1989-90, stemming from an internal dispute regarding the admissibility of gambling on the reserve. As casinos cropped up on reservations throughout the United States in the eighties, anti-gambling advocates at Akwesasne argued that the establishment of federally-regulated businesses on their reserve detracted from the community’s objective of sovereignty. However, the Mohawk Warriors Society fanatically defended the enterprise as a means of economic independence, and at times militantly defended the reserve from state troopers.

During the year-long conflict, groups both in support of and opposed to the casinos erected roadblocks along the adjoining Route 37, anti-gambling rioters looted and trashed casinos along the strip, a military helicopter was shot down, live hand grenades were thrown, dozens of cars were torched and vandalized, thousands of rounds of live ammunition were spent, and over 2,000 of the community’s residents were evacuated.

While increasingly calamitous news reached the local media, then-governor of New York Mario Cuomo insisted that reports of shootings were exaggerated, and did not give the order to send state troopers into Akwesasne until May 1, 1990 when Pyke’s younger brother Matthew, as well as another young man named JR Edwards, was shot and killed.

“It’s very difficult for me to be here at times, because some of the people that were shooting at you [then] are your comrades now. Even though it’s 19 years later, there’s still pain there,” said Pyke. “As long as there’s no guns, I can support this.”

Casinos at the time were a uniquely attractive source of income for some of the Mohawks of Akwesasne. Following the construction of the St. Laurence Seaway in the fifties and the establishment of a number of caustic industries, (including Alcoa, Domtar, and a recently-shuttered GM plant), upstream from the island, Akwesasne became one of the most polluted locales in North America and its traditional and self-sufficient means of living were all but completely wiped out. By the late eighties, some of the fish caught in the river had become too loaded with toxins to even be sold as fertilizer, and it was virtually impossible to raise livestock due to the levels of toxins in the soil.

This past week, CBSA guards at the new checkpoint began confiscating the cars – at a repossession fee of $1,000 – of Mohawks who had crossed onto the island from the south shore without first driving into Cornwall to notify CBSA that they had re-entered Canada.

The Mohawk community sees this policy as nearly extortion.

“It’s an act of aggression,” said MCA Grand Chief Mike Mitchell. “They’re pushing [the Mohawk community] into a corner…. And if they push us too far into a corner, then we’re going to have to react.”

He added that MCA has footed the recovery bill in many of the cases. “These are working people, but they’re low-income,” he said. He estimated that about 12 vehicles had been seized so far.

The Mohawk struggle for independent governance has long been at the crux of their complex relationships with Canada and the United States. Though the tobacco trade and the Akwesasne Mohawk Casino (which was established under U.S.-federal regulation years after the violence in the late eighties) have been adversely affected by the border dispute, each of the residents that I talked to expressed hopes that the departure of the CBSA from the island would ultimately mark a significant step toward sovereignty.

Most of the activists at the Akwesasne People’s Fire expressed little faith in the ability of MCA to gain additional autonomy due to its financial relationship with the federal government. Unlike conventional municipal governments that work with fixed budgets and independently determine how to spend them, the MCA is required to submit proposals for public works projects to the Ministry of Indian Affairs.

“How can you put yourself in a negotiating position where you’re biting the source of your funding?” said Pyke’s husband Billy Beattie, referring to the MCA’s reliance on the federal government. “We could be self-sufficient. We have plenty of doctors and nurses and pharmacists…. We could set up our own banking system here. We have to somehow, some way become completely independent of the Canadian government. We’re going to become strong and we have to stick together as a group. And a lot of the people that work for [MCA] don’t understand that.”

An 18-year-old named Cody who had recently moved to Akwesasne from Tyendinaga, a reserve near Belleville, Ontario, expressed a similar sentiment: “The [MCA] council is operated through Canada, through Indian Affairs, which is a part of the federal government, and basically, they have to do what their employer tells them to do.”

But while many in Akwesasne see the Grand Chief of MCA as being ill-equipped to apply any meaningful pressure on the federal government, the CBSA’s impounding of Mohawks’ cars has certainly ruffled some feathers.

“If [CBSA is] going to vacate [the island] and there’s a vacuum [of governance,] then we have to make up the difference,” said Mitchell. “When Canada says that [Cornwall Island] is still sovereign Canadian territory, we would call a question to that because we see it as no longer a part of Canada’s jurisdiction. We’ve refrained from doing this because we put a lot of good faith in what we’ve undertaken in cooperation with Canada to find a peaceful resolution, but this action does not go in that direction any longer.”