Akwesasne Border Control Issues (December 2012)

I recently had the privilege of visiting the territory of Akwesasne district of Kawehnoke, and meeting with Grand Chief Michael Kanentakeron Mitchell and some colleagues on the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne.

Our meeting was the result of my earlier visit to Cornwall, during which I learned of a disturbing situation involving local Canada-U.S. border arrangements that is emblematic of the failure of the federal government to make open and ongoing relations with indigenous Canadians a priority.

Like many indigenous border communities, Akwesasne is divided by the Canada-U.S. Border, with terms of settlement allowing free movement of Mohawks across Akwesasne territory. To further complicate matters, Akwesasne also straddles the Ontario/Quebec borders, with St. Régis and Snye on the Quebec side and Cornwall Island (Kawehnoke) in Ontario.

Over the years, there have been productive discussions with American authorities and the Akwesasne on issues such as access by the community to public schools and universities in New York and facilitating border crossings. For example, many Akwesasne Mohawk live in St. Régis and Snye, an area that is openly accessible via New York with no border checkpoint.

Seventy per cent of the border travelers at Cornwall are Akwesasne Mohawk crossing the border on a daily basis as part of daily life. Many band offices are in St. Régis and there is substantial movement back and forth to Cornwall Island that necessitates crossing, with relative ease, a single U.S. checkpoint.

Until 2009, the Canada- U.S. border facility, managed by the Canadian Border Security Agency (CBSA), was located on First Nations territory at the Kawehnoke Port of Entry, also known as Cornwall Island. It is located near recreational fields, a play area, a bus stop for children, houses and a convenience store.

In June 2009, the Mohawk community strongly opposed the Government of Canada’s decision to arm CBSA guards, pointing out the proximity of the Port of Entry to children and a residential area, arguing that it would constitute a direct infringement of sovereignty, and unnecessary given the history of peaceful relations.

Without serious attempt at negotiating a mutually satisfactory resolution, the CBSA facilities were moved onto the mainland on the Canadian side and the CBSA required all Akwesasne Mohawk service providers who regularly passed through a single U.S. checkpoint to go back and forth between St. Régis and Snye, and Cornwall Island via the U.S. mainland, to henceforth check in with the Canadian checkpoint now in Cornwall. This has meant crossing to Cornwall and then looping back to return through the single U.S. checkpoint and over the bridge to the US mainland, eventually returning home to St. Régis and Snye across the open access zone.

This is an unsustainable situation with long waits on the bridge to check in with the CBSA, and seizures of vehicles whose owners have either forgotten or cannot afford to wait in seriously congested traffic. The situation has persisted for three years, and other enforcement actions by the CBSA have resulted in complaints of racial profiling to the Canadian Human Rights Commission.

An additional consequence of the relocation of the border crossing is that all non-indigenous Canadians are now required to pay a toll of $3.25 to and from the island even though they are not crossing over to the U.S. This is another issue of serious concern since the imposition of a toll adds costs to services to the Akwesasne community, and in some cases prevents service providers from wanting to deliver services in the districts at all.

When I attended my meeting on Kawehnoke territory, I passed through a small control booth and paid my toll, and was asked no questions about my intentions once on the island. Upon returning, I paid the toll, but this time I was also quizzed insistently by the CBSA guard about whether I had crossed over to the U.S. side. After responding patiently, I was finally allowed to pass. Even for a random traveler such as me, my interface with the CBSA seemed incoherent and inconsistent.

The border-crossing situation urgently requires federal and indigenous negotiations to find a mutually acceptable alternative for both the Akwesasne Mohawk and Cornwall communities. At the very least, this should be achieved before the next international indigenous council meeting on border crossing in March 2013.

Some options to be considered:

  • Move the border crossing to the American side and restore the ability of all Akwesasne Mohawk to easily undertake local travel. Also, address the current unregulated crossings between the U.S. mainland and Cornwall Island, while facilitating passage for local Akwesasne Mohawk. This will require negotiations with the American authorities, given the potential for armed CBSA guards on American territory, but it is reasonable to expect that focused Canada-American discussions in this regard would produce an acceptable arrangement. This option would also limit the toll imposed to only those persons crossing the international bridge, and not those persons from Cornwall entering the Akwesane Mohawk community.
  • Continue with the existing location of the border crossing, but with the soon-to-be completed new three-lane bridge, arrange for tolls to be charged only on those crossing over to the U.S. and registering on the U.S side for verification purposes. At the same time, open a small substation on the island (where the old facilities used to be) for the AMPS to facilitate the registration of vehicles coming from St. Régis and Snye.
  • Finally, with respect to actual international crossings and indigenous sovereignty issues, Grand Chief Mitchell has indicated that at the next international council meeting in March 2013, he is open to exploring an adaptation of the NEXUS card system that will meet the unique needs and status of indigenous people on both sides of the Canada-U.S. border. The NEXUS card would state whether the cardholder was born in Canada or the United States rather than require the cardholder to declare Canadian or American citizenship. Government authorities should seriously consider this proposal as a practical approach that will allow a mutual strengthening of border security.