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Canada stands by Mohawk check-in at border

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Canada will continue to impound cars and impose fines on Mohawks who don't check in with customs officers in Cornwall, Ontario. Five vehicles have been seized in the last week. Canada's border agency resumed the controversial policy last Friday after a grace period. Akwesasne Mohawk leaders say tribal members are being punished for last summer's stand-off that closed the border crossing for six weeks. David Sommerstein reports.

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David Sommerstein
Reporter/ Producer

Mohawks were outraged when Canadian officials impounded 21 cars last month for not checking in at the new checkpoint in Cornwall, Ontario.  The vehicles had crossed the bridge from the US mainland to Cornwall Island on the St. Lawrence River without crossing the second span to mainland Canada to register with customs. 

The Mohawk Council of Akwesasne established a 30,000 fund to pay fines to get the vehicles back.

The Canadian Border Services Agency and the Mohawk Council negotiated a grace period.  The policy resumed on September 25th.  Border agency spokesman Lance Markell says five more cars have been seized since then.

All persons entering Canada must report forthwith to the Canada Border Services Agency and, in this case, at the Cornwall crossing, those individuals most report to the temporary location, which is situated in the city of Cornwall.  When a vehicle does not report, these vehicles will be intercepted at a later date and in this case, there was seizure action against five additional vehicles.

Mohawks say the new rule is payback for their opposition to a policy that would have armed customs officers at the longtime checkpoint on Cornwall Island.  That's the policy that provoked a stand-off that shut down the border crossing for six weeks and caused the move to the new checkpoint on the Canadian mainland.

According to Transport Canada data, 70% of the people who cross the border between Massena and Cornwall are Akwesasne Mohawks.  That's because the reservation is split in two.  Part is on American soil; part on Canadian soil.  Mohawk Council spokesman Brendan White says Mohawks do business, go to school, and socialize in both parts all the time, sometimes multiple times a day.  He says some houses and buildings literally sit on the border.

If they really want to follow the letter of the law, it will require some residents who are just going to their backyards to mow, to first report.  For some workers, just to go to the restroom, they'll have to go report, so there have to be some accommodation.

Mohawk Grand Chief Mike Mitchell has suggested that Mohawks staff the old customs booths on Cornwall Island, with backup from Mohawk police.  The Canadian Border Services Agency rejected that plan.

There are alternatives at other Canadian ports of entry.  Boaters who cross the St. Lawrence can check in with Canadian customs by telephone or videophone in places like Brockville or Ganonoque.  But agency spokesman Lance Markell says in Cornwall, the only way to check in is in person in Cornwall and there are no plans to change that.

So at this time, that is the sole position of the agency.

Mohawk spokesman Brendan White says individual tribal members have to decide for themselves whether to obey the rule.  But he says there's no more money to help them get their vehicles back.

For North Country Public Radio, I'm David Sommerstein.

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