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The new, low-level bridge going up last summer underneath the old span to Cornwall. Photo: Mohawk Council of Akwesasne  Communications.
The new, low-level bridge going up last summer underneath the old span to Cornwall. Photo: Mohawk Council of Akwesasne Communications.

New Cornwall bridge opens, but it still feels closed to Mohawks

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Friday at 7am, Canada opens a new bridge across the St. Lawrence River to Cornwall. Officials said the $75 million project will speed up travel and contribute to economic growth.

The port-of-entry into Canada has been plagued by long wait times since it was moved off Cornwall Island four years ago.

But Akwesasne Mohawks say the new bridge won't make traffic move faster. And they say the new bridge won't do anything to ease travel between Mohawk communities divided by the international border. David Sommerstein reports.

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MCA Grand Chief Mike Mitchell. Photo: MCA Communications

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David Sommerstein
Reporter/ Producer

Canadian customs moved off Akwesasne-owned Cornwall Island in 2009 after Mohawks protested Canada’s decision to arm customs officers there. Canada set up a provisional port-of-entry across the river in Cornwall.

And ever since then, thousands of travelers have experienced what I did last summer

SOMMERSTEIN: Random Tuesday afternoon in August, and I’ve been waiting on the Cornwall bridge for about 10 minutes now. There’s at least another 15 minute wait…

I ended up in line for more than 45 minutes. People in Akwesasne regularly report hour-long delays. They tweet and facebook, hey, what’s the wait time on the bridge?

Akwesasne Mohawks account for almost 75% of all traffic across the pair of Cornwall bridges. That’s because the U.S.-Canada border dissects Akwesasne.

So if you’re on the U.S. side of the reservation, you have to cross one bridge to get to Cornwall Island, which is technically in Canada but part of Akwesasne. But then Canada requires you to cross the second bridge to the city of Cornwall to check in at customs. So if your final destination is Akwesasne, you have to cross the bridge back to Cornwall Island.

CHIEF MITCHELL: Every time a health worker or a nurse needs to go to another district, they’ve got to go to Cornwall to report in order to carry out their services.

Mike Kanentakeron Mitchell is Grand Chief of the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne, which governs the Canadian side of the territory.

It’s that second span from Cornwall Island to Cornwall that has the long lines. And that’s the new bridge that opened today. But Mitchell says it won’t help much with the delays because there are only two toll booths.

MITCHELL: It’s like a bottleneck. And that can easily cause the traffic to be backed up.

Mitchell says that’s why Mohawks aren’t supporting the opening of the new bridge. He says another reason is Canada hasn’t agreed to an emergency response plan and a better way to move ambulances across the congested bridge.

In an email received late Thursday, the Canadian Border Services Agency said five inspection lanes at the new bridge will better allow Canadian customs officers to “better manage traffic volumes.” The CBSA says it remains committed to the customs station plan in Massena and that talks with the United States are “ongoing”.

The Federal Bridge Corporation which owns the bridge did not return calls for this story. In a press release, FBC president Micheline Dubé said the new span will provide “a sustainable and effective US-Canada link.”

But Grand Chief Mitchell says it does nothing to resolve that biggest problem – that Mohawks have to cross a bridge three times just to get home or to pick up the kids at school. He says if they don’t, even if they just stop on the Island to go to the bathroom because there’s a long wait on the bridge ahead, Canada will seize your car.

MITCHELL: Many people want to check the safety of their children or drop them off and then they go to report and they get their car seized. You need to pay $1,000 before you get your car back. So, all in all, we’re well over $300,000 we’ve spent in getting cars back for families in Akwesasne.

Two women from Akwesasne are challenging those seizures in court.

Last spring, the Canadian Border Services Agency proposed an alternative – locating Canadian customs next to U.S. customs in Massena. The Mohawk councils like that plan. It’s won non-native support, too. Massena mayor Jim Hidy says it would help business and tourism, but particularly the lives of Mohawk citizens.

MAYOR HIDY: It’s just a total inconvenience for these people. It really doesn’t make sense. I think having the Canadian customs on the Massena portion would help.

So does Congressman Bill Owens. But he says it would be the first such arrangement along the US-Canada border. And it could take a long time to iron out details, like if a Canadian officer arrests someone on US soil.

REP. OWENS: Attempting to bring something into Canada that’s illegal. Where is the person prosecuted? Are they taken back into Canada for prosecution or are they taken to a US court? So there are a fair number of tricky jurisdictional issues that need to be worked out. That’s going to take some time.

Canada is calling the station at the new bridge an “interim” solution. But Mohawk Council of Akwesasne Grand Chief Mike Mitchell finds that hard to believe.

MITCHELL: So they’re all saying this is temporary, but it looks like pretty permanent for me.

According to Seaway News, Canadian customs told the Cornwall city council this week that talks with Washington for a permanent station in Massena are “ongoing”.

As for the old bridge that closed today, officials say they’ll begin dismantling it. That will take two years.

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