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Desperation behind illegal border crossings, Akwesasne chief says

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The grand chief of Akwesasne’s elected council says desperation is driving some people to risk their lives crossing the Canada-U.S. border illegally, and economic pressure is driving some community members to help them.

The bodies of eight people — four from India and four of Romanian descent — were pulled from the St. Lawrence River near the Kanien’kehá:ka or Mohawk community about 130 kilometres west of Montreal on the Quebec, Ontario and New York borders.

Police believe the victims were attempting to cross into the U.S. from Canada by boat.

Akwesasne’s Casey Oakes, whose boat was found near the bodies, remains missing.

Police said in a news release Tuesday they believe Oakes was connected to the deaths. They had previously declined to make that connection.

Grand Chief of the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne Abram Benedict told CBC’s Ottawa Morning on Tuesday that the tragedy has taken a toll on the community, particularly on the first responders who took part in the search.

Benedict said he hopes the tragedy causes policymakers in both countries to question their approach to immigration.

“We need to take a moment, pause and think about how desperate these folks were that they would put their family’s lives at risk … to choose illegal routes to enter into another country,” he said, singling out long processing times for immigration applications and a lack of information for would-be migrants.

A friend of the victims who had ties to Romania said on Monday the family had been facing deportation from Canada. Local police in India didn’t know much about the circumstances of the other family.

A helicopter flies over the shore of a river.
Police helicopters search the St. Lawrence River marshland in Akwesasne on Friday. (Christinne Muschi/Reuters)

Authorities have said the territory’s unique geography makes it a popular spot for human smugglers, with police making 48 separate interceptions so far this year.

Benedict said some community members who are struggling financially can be tempted into helping organized criminals smuggle people across the border. 

“One would argue that smuggling, whether that’s people or goods, takes place because people need money,” he told CBC’s As It Happens on Monday. “The government needs to continue to support communities like Akwesasne with economic development.”

LISTEN | Benedict’s interview around the 26-minute mark: 

As It Happens1:15:26In the path of destruction

Arkansas tornado, WSJ reporter detained, Tennessee drag ban blocked, Akwesasne Grand Chief, Russian blogger killed, Ghanaian refugee on crossing, Swedish Brexit case and more

Considering root causes

Last month, Canada negotiated a deal with the United States to turn away asylum seekers at unofficial border crossings such as Roxham Road in Quebec, closing a long-standing loophole in the Safe Third Country Agreement.

Immigration advocates have warned the new rules would push people to take even greater risks in their efforts to cross the border.

Immigration Minister Sean Fraser called the eight deaths in Akwesasne horrific and said Monday they have caused him to think about potential solutions including addressing some of the root causes behind irregular border crossings.

WATCH | Immigration minister on possible policy changes

desperation behind illegal border crossings akwesasne chief says 1

Minister says he’s thinking about policy changes ‘to better protect the ability for Canadian children to be raised here.’

24 hours ago

Duration 2:46

Reporters ask Immigration Minister Sean Fraser whether the parents of children with Canadian passports should be allowed to stay in the country. This comes days after eight people died trying to cross the St. Lawrence River. Police said that when one of the men was recovered, he was holding the Canadian passports of his two children.

Whatever happens, Senator and former Cornwall, Ont., mayor Bernadette Clement told All In A Day on Monday local governments have to be partners in decisions because they’re often the first to respond.

“As more and more desperate people cross borders, this is going to have local impacts,” she said. “We want to make sure that municipalities and local authorities and Akwesasne and First Nations communities are at the planning table.”

Federal NDP immigration critic Jenny Kwan called on the government to suspend the Safe Third Country Agreement Monday, saying it was negotiated in secret and without consultation.