We'll have more next week on what the new bridge could mean for the ex-paper mill town of Cornwall. Construction was to have begun last summer.
But a standoff between Canadian border officials and Akwesasne Mohawks delayed the project and led to the closure of the customs checkpoint on Cornwall Island. The dispute over arming border agents shut down the international bridge between Cornwall and Massena for six weeks.
Today, Canada still operates a make shift checkpoint in the city of Cornwall. Locals report delays of up to two hours. Canadian and tribal officials haven't met in months. And Mohawks on Cornwall Island say they're stuck in a netherworld between two borders. David Sommerstein reports.
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I'm standing here in the middle lane of what used to be Canadian Customs on Cornwell Island. It's kind of weird. This is the place where you usually don't get out of your car and are not allowed to. And I'm just standing here. It's completely abandoned. All of the doors are locked. In fact, just on the other side of one of the locked customs building doors, is the purple Akwesasne flag. This used to be a Canadian border post, but now it's occupied by Akwesasne on Akwesasne territory.
"It’s not occupied. It’s vacant. They left," says Brendan White, spokesman for the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne, the tribal government on Cornwall Island. He’s talking about the Canadian border agents who used to staff this port of entry and says, "They voluntarily left minutes before midnight on May 31st and it’s been vacant ever since."
Tensions between the agents and the Indians have run high ever since this Canadian checkpoint was built on Mohawk land decades ago. But that night in 2009, when some 50 Mohawks gathered here to protest a new policy arming those agents with guns for the first time, everything changed.
The agents said they felt threatened and walked off the job. Ron Moran is president of the agents’ union, speaking last year. Moran says, "There were fires burning. There were people dressed in camouflage with scars on their faces. There were threats that they were going to storm the office."
The bridges from Cornwall Island – to the U.S. and Canadian mainlands - were closed for six weeks. Moran says the agents will never go back.
The Mohawks maintain all the protests were peaceful.
"We had children here. We had our elders here. We had parents," says Brendan White. He says the community felt threatened to have guns in the hands of the border agents they didn’t trust. But more important to the tribe was the fact that Mohawk leaders weren’t consulted.
"Alleviate our concerns in light that there have been several years of incidences in which our community members have been mistreated by border security officers and some complaints have been filed with the Canadian Human Rights Commission," says White.
A temporary checkpoint opened on the Canadian mainland in the city of Cornwall, and the bridges were re-opened. For Mohawks, who account for 70% of the bridge traffic, the Canadian Border Services Agency, or CBSA, took a hard line. Cornwall Island residents coming from the U.S. – where there’s an American side of the Mohawk reservation – would have to cross over into Cornwall and check in, then cross back over the bridge to go home. And if they didn’t, their car would be impounded. And they’d be fined a thousand dollars. Many Mohawks say it’s revenge.
"CBSA is not going to let this little band of Indians tell them what to do. And that’s where I think it stands right now," says Monica Sharrow, owner of Knead Your Bread, a bakery and sandwich shop in Cornwall Island’s only strip mall. She’s paying bills at a table. It doesn’t look good. "If things don’t pick up soon, I’m looking at closing the end of August, September," says Sharrow. She says the whole incident’s been crippling. All but one Canadian distributor has stopped delivering to her restaurant, citing the long lines that back up behind the temporary port of entry.
Sharrow says she doesn’t blame them. You can wait for up to two hours on the bridge, she says, high above the St. Lawrence River. "It’s like a giant detention center, Cornwall Island is right now. My husband and I don’t even hardly go anywhere, especially on weekends, because when we go to the States, you gotta wait in line there, then we gotta wait in line on the bridge here, just to turn around and come home. So we don’t go anywhere," says Sharrow.
All along the St. Lawrence River, CBSA operates video or telephone stations that allow boaters to check in with border agents without going to an actual port of entry. When asked why such an arrangement can’t be used for Cornwall Island’s 500 residents, CBSA replied by e-mail just that direct reporting is the policy in Cornwall.
The Canadian Border Services Agency declined to be interviewed for this story. In an e-mail, the CBSA did say it expected to announce the fate of the Cornwall Port of Entry by the end of August.
The options are a permanent station in the city of Cornwall, returning to Cornwall Island, which appears unlikely, or building a station on the U.S. mainland, next to U.S. customs. "Which we believe would be an excellent resolution to this issue," says Congressman Bill Owens, Canada’s minister of public safety has spoken with U.S. Homeland Security secretary Janet Nepolitano about the so-called co-location option.
Owens acknowledges the hardships Mohawks currently face on Cornwall Island and says, "This would completely eliminate that because the Mohawk community would be inside, if you will, the Canadian customs operations so that they would not need to go back and forth through any Canadian customs when they went into Cornwall or back into the Mohawk community."
Cornwall mayor Bill Kilger says he supports any resolution that keeps the bridges open. Last summer’s closure hit the city’s economy hard. Kilger says he has a good relationship with the Mohawk chiefs. And he says he disapproved of the way Canada had border agency functionaries – rather than higher level ministers from Public Safety Canada - talk with the Mohawks throughout the bridge incident.
Kilger says, "We had hoped that the federal government would have the political people involved in the discussions but they took a very, very different approach, one which is rather unique in my estimation, but, look, at the end of the day, you gotta play the game with the rules as they’re laid out."
The Canadian Border Services Agency says it’s negotiating with the Mohawks over things like aboriginal awareness training and recruiting more native border agents.
But tribal spokesman Brendan White says those talks go back to 2006, years before the Cornwall Island port of entry closed. He says when chiefs brought up more recent issues at a meeting last October, CBSA officials walked out, something CBSA wouldn’t confirm or deny.
"They don’t want to talk about the reporting requirement, the unprofessional conduct of their border security officers and how they’ve been treating our community members, so when we got to that point and we wanted to talk about the reporting requirement, they closed their book and walked out of the room," says White.
The CBSA has impounded dozens of cars for failing to report immediately to the makeshift port of entry. The Mohawk Council of Akwesasne has set up a fund to help tribal members pay the fines.
"I had my vehicle seized last September. I was one of the first ones to have my car taken," says Lucy Roundpoint owner of the Purple Ribbon gift shop in the same strip mall on Cornwall Island as the bakery. She says people from the U.S. can’t stop at her shop anymore or they’ll risk having their cars impounded.
Roundpoint says she never cared about the border agents being armed. "I don’t think anybody thought they were going to move to Cornwall. That’s my opinion."
In hindsight, for a small island of Mohawks stuck between an international border, two bridges and two nations, fighting Canada’s gun policy may have backfired, says Roundpoint.