Kawehnoke—coloquially known as “Cornwall Island”—sits in the middle of the St. Lawrence River at the intersecting waterway borders of Ontario to the north, Quebec to the east, and New York State to the south. The island, which on a modern map belongs to Ontario, is part of the Akwesasne Mohawk’s reserve lands that span both interprovincial and international borders.
While respecting, but not necessarily “seeing” borders, the Akwesasne have established schools, health care facilities, residences and administrative offices throughout their reserve lands that cross all three jurisdictions. As a result, for matters of daily life and to access essential services (such as health care and education, or to simply visit family on Kawehnoke) individuals are required to report to the Canada Border Services Agency’s Cornwall Port of Entry every time they travel to or from the island.
Here’s an example of how this works (which might be better conceptualized by a hockey coach on a white board with dry erase markers): Let’s say there’s a family emergency and an Akwesasne woman needs to pick her daughter up from school. She lives in New York State but the school is on Kawehnoke, which is Mohawk land under Ontario’s jurisdiction.
This requires the mother to drive north across the Three Nations Bridge and over the St. Lawrence to Ontario (passing the island her daughter’s school is on along the way), lining up and answering questions at the Cornwall port of entry, then backtracking south and halfway across the bridge to pick her daughter up on the island. Then she has to turn around and head back north to the Cornwall port of entry to be questioned again, and finally loop back south to cross the entire bridge again to get home.
If you’ve ever driven through a border then you’ve experienced the anxiety of how unpredictable wait times can be, how dick-headed border agents can be, and how much general stress a port of entry can add to your overall travel plans. Now imagine that the border doesn’t even legally apply to you, and yet you’re still forced to go through all of the bullshit it entails at least twice a day—just to go to work or take your kids to school.
To have to go through the strict, CBSA imposed process of clearing customs on a daily basis, adversely affects the freedom of mobility and quality of life of the Akwesasne community so much so that it borders on an abuse of their human rights. In addition to the economic and governance issues that arise when thousands of working hours in the year are lost, while individuals are forced to wait in line at the border, the most vulnerable in the community are the ones who tend to suffer the most.
Children who attend the school at Kawehnokehave to leave their homes in the early hours of the morning to wait on the bridge and clear customs before going to school. Not surprisingly—because having to answer to armed guards twice a day can be a little stressful—parents have reported that many children have become increasingly anxious and nervous. Health professionals in the community have described the effect this is having on Akwesasne children as a collective post-traumatic stress epidemic.
Elderly members of the community who have medical appointments in Kawehnoke are also forced to wait on the bridge for as long as it takes to clear customs, and members of the community coming to visit chronically ill relatives at Kawhenhoke’s long-term care facility are often faced with terribly anxious wait times while they are waiting to report, rather than being by the sides of their loved ones. The Mohawk Council of Akwesasne has also received numerous confidential reports of children and elders accidentally relieving themselves in private vehicles or on school buses due to the long wait times at the Three Nations Bridge.
This is the reality of the Cornwall Port of Entry, and recent reports indicate that it can result in a discriminatory, humiliating, and abusive process. Tensions have been rising between the community and CBSA agents regarding their obligations to report, a process which over the past few years has become more and more arduous without any consultation or autonomy given to the people who actually have to go through it every single day. Which brings us to a particular event that took place recently, and is now the subject of a civil suit for false imprisonment leveled against the CBSA by the Mohawks of Akwesasne.
Sarahlee Skidders—who happens to be confined to a wheelchair due to a 2007 car accident—was driving her customized vehicle through the Cornwall port of entry. For no apparent reason, Sarahlee was deemed highly suspicious and upon questioning by a border agent, was detained for “secondary inspection” at the customs office. Over the next five hours, CBSA agents essentially held Sarahlee hostage, using her as bait to get her boyfriend—who is suspected of cigarette smuggling—to turn himself in. During this time of false imprisonment, the claim alleges that CBSA agents intentionally inflicted mental and emotional suffering.
She was repeatedly asked if she was sure she couldn’t stand or walk, and forced to justify her use of a wheelchair. She was interrogated about her relationship with her boyfriend, their way of life, and falsely told she was facing charges of obstruction of justice and aiding and abetting—criminal offences that could land her in jail. The agents also told her they had been “watching her,” but that if she cooperated they would be able to drop the charges. When she asked if she needed a lawyer, they told her that would only be required if she was hiding something.
At one point, to keep her confined, a heavy chair was put in front of her so she couldn’t maneuver her wheelchair. She was told by CBSA agent Andrea Gladding that if she tried to leave the office she would be taken out of her wheelchair. Through text message, Sarahlee was eventually able to contact her family. When her mother and sister arrived they noticed that Sarahlee, who also suffers from type-1 diabetes, didn’t look well. She was denied a request for food and through her hours of detention was provided a single bottle of water. Jason Cole, Sarahlee’s boyfriend, turned himself in that afternoon and Sarahlee was subsequently released without any of the charges she’d been threatened with.
“There is a pattern at the port of entry in Cornwall of harassment, intimidation and unlawful detention, particularly of young Native people and the old”, said Sarahlee Skidder’s lawyer, Andrew Unger. “I have heard so many horror stories over the last couple of years it would blow your mind. This, in a way, is more vicious; they threatened to take her out of her wheelchair, put impediments in her path so she was cornered. They did not provide any sympathy.”
I got in touch with Andrew for his perspective on if the trauma that Sarahlee went through is indicative of a broader problem in regards to a CBSA port of entry whose agents are notorious for their brutal use of racial profiling, intimidation, and harassment.
“We are aware of many instances where CBSA officers in Cornwall unlawfully detain members of the community and regularly abuse their authority,” he told me by email. “We have heard many stories of people being detained for hours for no apparent reason and on spurious grounds—members of the community or their vehicles are often held for many hours waiting for a K9 team to come from Ottawa to search their vehicles and in the overwhelming majority of cases (99 plus percent) they are ultimately released with no charges. There also seems to be a pattern of targeting vulnerable members of the community (the young, the elderly, etc.).
We have looked at bringing several other cases including one where two young people (one of them a minor) were unlawfully stripped searched on suspicion of carrying drugs (nothing was found on them or in their vehicles). In my view, there are serious issues in terms of abuse of power/authority by officers at the Port of Entry in Cornwall—I have often characterized it as a ‘rogue’ Port of Entry because I can’t believe that such abuses happen so regularly at other Ports of Entry.”
To their credit—seeing as their outfit is also facing an inquest into why a woman being detained was found hanging in a shower stall—the CBSA responded to my questions but the answers were pretty vapid, so I guess I got what I expected out of law enforcement communications.
“This matter is before the courts, it would be inappropriate to comment at this time… All persons, including domestic travellers transiting the POE as they travel from Cornwall Island into the City of Cornwall via the North Span Bridge, are required to report directly to the CBSA… Our border service officers are the first line of defence at the border and are well positioned to combat the illicit smuggling of contraband by criminal organizations.” That sort of thing. However, whether to deflect criticism or if it’s a legitimate concern, they did interestingly note that: “People smuggling by organized groups in the Cornwall area is an ongoing issue.”
In the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne’s press release regarding Sarahlee Skidders false imprisonment lawsuit, Chief Brian David is quoted as saying: “It is unfortunate that incidents of this nature have continued to occur at CBSA. At times we seem to be going in the right direction… just next month we are conducting cultural sensitivity training sessions with CBSA officers. However, basic human rights continue to be violated and we remain committed to defending our community members and demanding justice and change.”
Unfortunately, though I’m sure not every CBSA agent at the Cornwall port of entry is a numbskull, and it really must be an obscenely stressful work environment, I’m not so sure that cultural sensitivity training is going to cut it. While other jurisdictions and governments across the country are slowly making strides to respect and take indigenous peoples rights into account, this particular border seems to be moving backwards. Hopefully Sarahlee Skidders’ lawsuit and the publicity it may garner can help to expedite a necessary change in attitudes and procedures to alleviate the stresses that members of the Akwesasne community face on a daily basis at the Cornwall Port of Entry.