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Mohawks defend sovereignty at Akwesasne

Published Jun 14, 2009 9:12 PM

The Mohawks of Akwesasne are defending the sovereignty of their territory by protesting a Canadian government plan to arm border guards at Akwesasne with guns as of June 1. On June 8 Mohawks at Tyendinaga in eastern Ontario blockaded the Skyway Bridge to show their solidarity with Akwesasne.

Canadian border agents walked off the job on June 1, and the Canadian Borders Services Agency preemptively shut down the Cornwall Island border crossing after the Akwesasne Mohawk leadership said it would not allow armed border guards on their territory.

Canadian Public Safety Minister Peter Van Loan, who has refused to consult with the Mohawks, has said the border crossing would not reopen until the Mohawks accepted armed guards at the post. The Canadian government plans to have all Canadian customs officers carry guns by 2016, and implementation of this program has already begun.

Although initially Mohawk residents of Akwesasne were prevented from crossing the bridge to get from one side to the other of their own reserve, the crossing was reopened to Mohawks in June. The Mohawks are maintaining a 24-hour encampment at the border crossing. Some news reports state that the Canadian government is considering relocating the border crossing outside of Mohawk territory.

The Mohawk territory of Akwesasne straddles the jurisdictions of Ontario, Quebec and New York state, and is an international border crossing between Canada and the United States. Out of 119 land-border crossings managed by the CBSA, it is the only crossing located in the middle of a First Nations territory.

Mohawk land was illegally expropriated for this purpose. For decades, the Mohawks have resented and protested being forced to cross through U.S. and Canadian customs in order to travel within their own territory, and they have endured a long history of harassment by border guards.

The Canada Customs port of entry is located in Kawehnoke, a residential district of the Akwesasne Mohawk Territory, and is the location of a school bus stop, recreational fields, a large number of homes, a district convenience store, several small businesses and other typical features of a populated residential area. The Mohawks have protested for months due to their concern that the community would be endangered if CBSA agents were to carry firearms.

Akwesasne Mohawks account for nearly 70 percent of traffic that passes through the border facility. This includes Kawehnoke residents who use the border crossing several times each day on their way to work or school; to carry on daily business; to visit friends and family; or to attend the health, social, cultural or recreational facilities and events throughout this territory bisected by the international border.

As one Akwesasne Mohawk, Larry King, told the Ottawa Citizen shortly before the June 1 deadline, “The CBSA is a foreign, oppressive force who occupies our sovereign community and territory. [They are] unwelcome, uninvited and now carrying firearms. For lack of a different description, that is considered by some an act of war.” (May 29)

Canada gov’t denies Indigenous sovereignty

Numerous other Native struggles and blockades are currently taking place across Canada against a backdrop of a Conservative Canadian federal government led by Stephen Harper. Some First Nations people had hoped for a better relationship with Canada because of Harper’s much-publicized apology last year for the crimes committed against thousands of Indigenous people by the government during the residential school era. At that time tens of thousands of Native children were snatched from their homes, put in residential schools, and all too often beaten, molested and even killed.

Harper’s government, however, has increasingly signaled that it will not recognize the sovereignty of Native nations. Harper and his cronies are moving to what they call a more “market-oriented” approach in relation to First Nations. Ottawa has now stated that it will withhold additional funds to Native nations that are not considered by Ottawa to be sufficiently cooperative.

Chuck Strahl, Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, recently contrasted the benefits of cooperation and partnership with the situation at Akwesasne. Strahl said the government of Canada does not recognize the Mohawks’ sovereignty claim and the rule of law applies to everyone: “Mohawk communities have a particular perspective about pre-Confederation and so on. I hope that nothing I’m saying is disrespectful but my observation is ... if you don’t develop healthy working relations and partnerships with other levels of government and your neighbors, you will suffer because you lack opportunities.” (National Post, June 3)

First Nations across Canada have a common source of frustration: They are not consulted on laws or policies that impact them directly.

The Canadian government, like the U.S. government, has refused to support the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. This declaration provides minimum standards for the survival of the world’s Indigenous peoples.

Canada is also preparing to host the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, British Columbia. Some First Nations and lesbian, gay, bi, trans and queer activists, residents who have been forced out of Vancouver’s Eastside, and others are opposing the Olympics and have threatened to disrupt the games. The border guards are expected to be part of a heavy security effort during the Olympics.

To show support for the Mohawks of Akwesasne, contact Canadian officials:

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Office of the Prime Minister, 80 Wellington St., Ottawa, ON K1A 0A2 Canada; fax 613-941-6900; e-mail pm@pm.gc.ca.

Public Safety Minister Peter Van Loan, Parliament Hill Office; phone 613-996-7752; fax 613-992-8351; e-mail vanloan.p@parl.gc.ca.

Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development Chuck Strahl, 10 Wellington St., Gatineau, Quebec K1A 0H4 Canada; phone 819-997-0002; fax 819-953-4941.