Searchers battled poor weather and visibility on Saturday as they continued to look for a missing boater on the St. Lawrence River, near the Quebec-Ontario border, where the bodies of eight people, including two young children, were recovered this week.
Casey Oakes, 30, an Akwesasne resident, was last seen on Wednesday at about 9:30 p.m. ET, boarding a small, light-blue vessel leaving Cornwall Island. He was dressed in black, wearing a black face mask and a black tuque.
The Akwesasne Mohawk Police Service has not made any direct connections between the recovered bodies and Oakes. Officials are working with Immigration Canada and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to confirm the identities of the dead.
The bodies recovered from the river are those of six adults and two children. One child is under the age of three and had a Canadian passport, while the other is an infant who was also a Canadian citizen, police said Friday.
Those who died are believed to be an Indian family and a Romanian family who were attempting to cross into the United States near the Kanien’kehá:ka community of Akwesasne — which straddles Quebec, Ontario and New York state — according to police.
They were found in a marsh on the riverbank.
Valene Gray, owner of the Three Feathers Café, said the community has been shaken by the tragedy.
“In the past couple days, it’s been very heavy, very emotional, customers coming in and they’re sad,” Gray said in an interview on Saturday. “You could tell they were upset, you could tell they were hurting.”
Wanting to offer support to her community, Gray said it was an honour to be hired by the Mohawk council to make sure all of the volunteer searchers were fed. She said the café has provided breakfast sandwiches for the past two days and supper on Friday.
“It’s very important to be supportive and to be a true community member,” she said.
Popular spot for human smuggling, police say
A few of the volunteers could be seen gathered at the Akwesasne Volunteer Fire Department, in Hogansburg, N.Y., on Saturday, while police blocked off access to the marina, where a command post was set up.
Authorities say the territory’s unique geography makes it a popular spot for human smugglers, with police making 48 separate interceptions this year. Most of those who try to enter the U.S. through the area are of Indian and Romanian descent.
In February, police in Akwesasne reported an increase in human smuggling into the Kanien’kehá:ka community.
Longtime community member Alex Burns said the river has been a prime area for smuggling for years because the “border is open.”
“There’s no customs here,” he said.
Burns said he was once involved in smuggling alcohol because it was an easy way to make money, something he believes is the driving force behind the popularity of human smuggling.
People in the community “don’t have any money, so $1,000 a head is like a million for them,” he said.
“It’s really tragic because people are still hard-strapped for money. There’s a lot of businesses here that they can go work at, but they don’t have the skills, a lot of them haven’t graduated high school. They can’t get jobs here because they don’t have education.”
Burns said it’s up to authorities to figure out how to stop human smuggling to ensure tragedies like this don’t happen again.
Gray, for her part, hopes the community can heal from this tragedy and not be tainted by it.
“We have a really good community, and I’m just hoping this tragic event doesn’t keep a black eye on here because that’s not what we’re about,” she said.