The tragic drowning of eight people attempting to cross illegally into the United States has shone an unfortunate light on the Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk) community of Akwesasne, which straddles the Ontario, Quebec and New York state borders and is divided by the St. Lawrence River.
The reserve’s unique geography has long made it a popular smuggling conduit for tobacco, drugs, weapons and people. With Akwesasne’s Casey Oakes still missing in connection with the deaths, Grand Chief Abram Benedict said that the tragedy has taken a toll on the community of 20,000, particularly on the first responders who helped with the search.
“The tragedy that struck our community has tested the fortitude of our first responders to possibly an unprecedented level,” posted Kyle Lazore of the Hogansburg Akwesasne Volunteer Fire Department. “It’s a sombre atmosphere, and you can see the weariness in their faces. Some wander off to be alone … then they’re back at it again, with what seems like a tireless effort, in hopes of bringing closure to a grieving family and community.”
Akwesasne Mohawk Police Chief Shawn Dulude said his officers have made 48 interceptions involving 80 people trying to cross the border through Akwesasne since January. In February, local police issued a statement of concern about the increased human smuggling, which was frequently resulting in hospitalization for migrants and putting first responders at risk.
Some immigration advocates warned the closure of the unofficial border crossings at Roxham Road in Quebec last month would push desperate migrants to riskier areas. In response to the Akwesasne tragedy, Immigration Minister Sean Fraser said he was reconsidering the root causes behind these crossings.
Although unconnected with this recent case, an Ontario man named Simranjit Singh was charged the following week, alleged to be the “primary organizer” of a human smuggling network using Akwesasne territory. After brokering a deal with migrants, Singh allegedly would pay Akwesasne members $2,000 to $3,000 per person to transport them into the US.
When locals were complaining that the easy money of cigarette smuggling was slowly corrupting parts of the reserve decades ago, former Grand Chief Mike Mitchell blamed the federal government for not heeding his alarms and ignoring requests for more positive business development.
“We all know that [organized crime] will use the Akwesasne territory as a corridor for the movement of illicit goods, and that the Canadian government will use the Mohawks of Akwesasne as the scapegoats,” Mitchell wrote then-prime minister Jean Chrétien in 1998.
With gunfire from rival crime groups often making the river unsafe at night over the years, some have gotten rich as community tensions have escalated. What some call a right to Native sovereignty, others call morally reprehensible. The implication of certain locals in these smuggling operations complicates the response of Indigenous law enforcement.
“Smuggling has been happening for centuries,” said JoJoe Van Hooser, a youth protection worker in Ottawa from the Bay of Quinte Mohawks. “But when somebody dies, that’s when it hits the papers and becomes an issue. If they’re trying to get the traffickers who could be family members, it affects the community as a whole. I could be a police officer, but my brother might be smuggling babies or cigarettes.”
Working for the Children’s Aid Society by day, Van Hooser is also involved with several Ottawa organizations fighting human trafficking (HT), including the restorative home for sex-trafficked youth, A New Day. She volunteers on the streets at night, going “undercover and (helping) the girls get out of human trafficking.”
“The human trafficking ring goes down (Highway) 401, transported through Montreal, Toronto and Ottawa and out of the airports,” Van Hooser told the Nation. “We know there is human trafficking in Akwesasne. The waterways are one of the biggest ways of getting the girls across the different borders.”
According to Public Safety Canada, about half of human trafficking victims are Indigenous women. The average age of recruitment into the sex trade is just 13 years old. On March 23, Akwesasne’s Sierra Caldwell spoke in public for the first time at the Anti-Human Trafficking Day of Learning in Long Sault, Ontario, about being a sex-trafficking victim two decades ago, when she was 14 and growing up in Austin, Texas.
“I survived this for a reason,” Caldwell told the CBC. “I want people to know that it could happen to their sister or daughter. If I had known how to show signs, if my mother had known how to decode certain signs or ask questions, I could have been saved from the start.”
Patrick Dussault, the former anti-human trafficking liaison for the Akwesasne Family Wellness Program (AFWP), said three women from Akwesasne had received services as victims of sex trafficking in the last five months. The AFWP told the Nation that Dussault was no longer with their program, and they declined to comment on recent events.
Dussault said pimps often take the guise of loved ones, so girls don’t initially realize they’re being trafficked as their community ties are severed. Van Hooser said there are even parents that groom and pimp out their own children.
“When our beautiful cousins from the North come into the city, it’s absolute culture shock,” Van Hooser noted. “They don’t know what to look out for, then they’re very vulnerable. There should be a protocol where they’re connected to someone to help them navigate that important information.”
Montreal’s Iskweu Project has worked to connect Indigenous arrivals with support services, including prevention kits at the bus station where pimps are known to target girls. The Cree Women of Eeyou Istchee Association emphasized the importance of these safety measures after a young Cree woman shared that she was a victim of human trafficking at the Lac Lemay Casino last summer.
While governments are providing increasing resources to combat human trafficking, Akwesasne Grand Chief Benedict asserted that funding has been insufficient to address the complexity of the issue, both in terms of law enforcement and prevention.
“Human trafficking affects the community as a whole because it’s our people who may be partaking in it and also dying in it,” Van Hooser explained. “It’s not just Akwesasne with the smuggling at the border. Everyone needs HT training, especially the 101 toolbox to keep children safe.”