Loretta Lazore, a resident of the Akwesasne Mohawk Territory, watches a Sûreté du Québec helicopter search for the bodies on March 31, 2023, after a boat carrying migrants from Romania and India capsized.
Police found the eight bodies while searching for Casey Oakes, 30, an Akwesasne man reported missing Thursday.By Allan WoodsStaff Reporter
Steve McKinleyStaff Reporter
Fri., March 31, 20238 min. read
Article was updated 56 mins ago
AKWESASNE, QUEBEC The deaths of eight migrants in the frigid waters of the St. Lawrence River this week were preceded by cries for help that went unanswered before the voices went silent.
Akwesasne Mohawk Police Service Chief Shawn Dulude made the awful revelation in announcing Friday afternoon that two lifeless bodies — a child of Romanian origin with Canadian citizenship, and a woman from India — had been spotted and recovered in addition to the six victims discovered Thursday.
The earlier victims were described as being members of two families, one of Romanian descent, another of Indian citizens. Five were adults and one was a child below the age of three — also with Canadian citizenship of Romanian descent.
Police search-and-rescue teams in helicopters and boats continued to search a chain of marshy wooded islands for Casey Oakes, a member of the Mohawk community, who was last seen getting into a small boat at about 9:30 p.m. Wednesday night from the east end of Cornwall Island.
Dulude said his marine unit deployed later that same night after receiving calls about people shouting for help. The unit searched neighbouring St. Regis Island, the largest in the chain of islands running along the Ontario-Quebec border, area using night-vision equipment that was capable of also detecting body heat.
“While they were patrolling in that area and investigating in that area they were not able to see any human heat or any movement on the water,” Dulude told reporters.
The eight confirmed deaths on the water this week are a human disaster with a horrible political twist.
Coming less than a week after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and U.S. President Joe Biden tightened their bilateral border rules to discourage migrants from illegally crossing to make asylum claims, the drownings would seem to fulfill the predictions that migrants would simply take greater risks to reach their intended destinations rather than be discouraged.
“We question why? Why is this happening? It seems to be (people) in search of something better,” said Akwesasne Grand Chief Abram Benedict.
“This is definitely heart wrenching and it gets to the core of what these policy decisions and policy issues are for Canada and the United States, and they need to take a better look at this.”
Asked specifically if he believed the deaths could be linked to the changes made to the Safe Third Country Agreement, Benedict said: “I believe that it may be related. It’s really hard to know.”
The tragedy also shines an uncomfortable light on the persistent problem of illegal smuggling in an Indigenous community that straddles the borders of Ontario, Quebec and New York state.
Dulude, the police chief, said that his officers had intercepted 80 people attempting to cross into the U.S. from Canada in 48 separate incidents since the beginning of the year. Most were Romanians and Indians, and they were detained and handed over to the Canada Border Services Agency, in accordance with standard protocol.
But an untold number of migrants are not caught due to the unique political and geographical boundaries that cut through Akwesasne, lines that are being exploited, according to Dulude, by criminal gangs from Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal.
“There are certain people in our community who will be vulnerable. Usually we’re looking at the younger people looking to make money,” he said.
“It’s money — quick money. But there is a risk that comes with it and this, unfortunately, shows on a larger scale the risk that is involved with it.”
Dulude said that Oakes is considered a “person of interest” in the investigation and that he has no information about his potential involvement in human smuggling activities.
Josie Swamp, the sister of Oakes’ grandmother, struggled Friday as she watched a low-flying Sûreté du Québec helicopter searching the island across from her longtime residence to understand why her 30-year-old relative would have taken to the waters Wednesday night.
“I really don’t know what he was doing out there,” she said. “It was a bad night, there was a storm going through and it was really bad. It must have been real rough.”
Swamp described Oakes as a “good kid” who lived on the Canadian side of the Akwesasne Mohawk territory, which straddles the Canada-U.S. border. Oakes has two children of his own — a daughter, aged eight, and a newborn who is less than two months old, Swamp said.
He was charged last year with two criminal counts: dangerous operation of a conveyance and assault with a weapon. He is due back in court in Valleyfield, Que., at the end of May for the case, which was investigated by the Akwesasne police.
A missing person alert from the Akwesasne Mohawk Police Service said that Oakes was last seen boarding a small, light blue boat on Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. He was wearing a black vest, snow pants, a black face mask and a toque.
At that time there were westerly winds of about 24 kilometres-per-hour, moving against the water’s eastward current.
It was deceptively different on Friday afternoon. The air was cold but there was barely a ripple in the water when Loretta Lazore, her son and her companion, Brian Boots, drove down toward the water to witness the search.
A police helicopter performed a low, slow aerial sweep of the water between the island, which is home to summer camps for hunting and fishing, and the southern mainland of the Mohawk territory, which leads into the United States.
“It’s swift on that side,” said Lazore, motioning to the opposite side of the island. “I think there was a windstorm (on Wednesday night) and when that wind picks up … the waves!”
“And then with that many people in the boat,” added Boots, shaking his head in disbelief.
Lazore has a deep and intimate knowledge of this part of the river. As a teenager, she worked at Akwesasne Fuel, a food stop and gas station for boats. She crouched down and placed her hands into the imprint in the cement at the dock that she had made when she was just 15 years old, to the great amazement of her son.
“I used to go with my brother in the boat because we used to deliver propane out to the islands,” Lazore said.
“We were out in a windstorm one time … We got just around the marsh where them trees are and the waves are like three, three-and-half feet.”
Despite the risks, smuggling is a prevalent and lucrative industry in Akwesasne. It is one of the numerous things that draw outsiders to the community, in addition to the Mohawk casino, the cheap cigarette stores or the marijuana dispensaries that line the Canada and U.S. sides of the territory.
The smugglers try to keep their work hidden, but it’s hard to hide.
One Akwesasne resident, who lives near a public boat launch on the Canadian side, said he sees as many as 10 migrants a day crossing the border.
“They go through our hay, we find them in our buildings. We call the cops and tell them to get the hell out of here, because we don’t do that here,” said the man, who asked not to be identified.
He said he couldn’t tell where the migrants were coming from and feared problems from smugglers for getting too involved in efforts to interrupt the migrant crossings.
“We can’t put up cameras because if somebody gets caught they will retaliate against us,” he said. “We just try to keep them off our property and mind our own business.”
Living on a property that backs on to the water, Swamp said she had witnessed numerous search-and-rescue operations unfold over the years from smuggling operations gone wrong.
“One day there were people across the river. It was a man, a woman and a child,” she said, motioning to the marshy island where the police search was underway Friday afternoon.
“Somebody left them on the island and they were stranded over there, and then somebody noticed them and brought them over here. Another time, this man swam across the river because there was a store. He swam across to get help,” she said. “I wish they wouldn’t do that … I wish they would get real jobs and not risk it like this.”
In February, Akwesasne police put out a notice alerting the community to an increase in illegal entries to Akwesasne.
“We would like to remind the community that human smuggling is a crime and poses serious concerns for not only the individual(s) committing the act but the entire community of Akwesasne,” it read.
On Friday, Police Chief Dulude attributed the persistence of the smuggling problem to the “quite peculiar” geography of the territory.
“I don’t want to sound like we’re the victim but being where we are brings its slew of issues and there are people who are willing to profit from our issues and it’s unfortunate but that’s the way it is,” he said.
In May 2022, U.S. authorities had charged a U.S. citizen with felony “alien smuggling” after he allegedly abandoned six Indian nationals on a sinking boat during a failed smuggling attempt across the St. Lawrence into New York state.
Federal authorities alleged the man knew his passengers could not swim when the boat started taking on water more than 200 metres from the Canadian border after leaving Cornwall, Ont. Court filings said the man “proceeded to exit the sinking vessel and walked to shore.”
The boat was almost completely submerged by the time firefighters arrived. All seven people were treated for hypothermia and then arrested by U.S. Border Patrol.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reacted to the discoveries on Friday, telling reporters in Moncton, N.B., “our hearts go out to the families of the individuals who perished; this is a heartbreaking situation.”
He was asked whether the deaths were related to the recent immigration agreement between Canada and the United States — which closed unofficial ports of entry to would-be refugees seeking asylum in Canada. In response, he said he didn’t want to speculate.
“We have to understand properly what happened and do whatever we can to minimize the chances of it happening again.”
With files from Marco Chown-Oved
With files from The Associated Press and The Canadian Press
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