Two new bodies were found Friday in the St. Lawrence River on the Akwesasne Reservation that straddles Quebec, Ontario and New York State, bringing the total of victims to eight. The “shattering” death of these migrants trying to enter the United States illegally has not failed to react everywhere on the political scene.
Local police confirmed on Friday that they had found two additional bodies at the end of the day, those of a woman of Indian origin and a child of Romanian origin with a Canadian passport. They were located by a Sûreté du Québec (SQ) helicopter, which saw them from the air.
Earlier, Thursday evening, six victims had already been identified. They came from “two families, one of Indian origin and the other of Romanian origin”. “There are five adults and one child,” Lee-Ann O’Brien, deputy local police chief, said at the time as the search continued on the waters of the river. “We believe the victims were trying to enter the United States illegally,” the police officer explained.
In total, six adults and two children died during the tragedy. Since January, the Akwesasne Mohawk Police Service says it has handled 48 incidents in which 80 people attempting to enter the United States illegally have been intercepted since January 2023. “I can’t say it’s up. Our community is used to these kinds of incidents, “said Akwesasne Police Service Chief Shawn Dulude at a press conference.
Typically, migrants crossing are met on the U.S. side of Akwesasne by drivers who take them elsewhere in New York state, O’Brien said. Surveillance has also been increased recently. Important fact: there is no border crossing between Canada and the United States in Mohawk territory.
The first bodies were found near an overturned boat belonging to a missing man from the community of Akwesasne. This man is called Casey Oakes and the authorities are asking for the public’s help in locating him. Aged 30 and from Akwesasne, Mr Oakes was last seen on Wednesday as he boarded a blue boat from the eastern part of Cornwall Island. According to the police, nothing allows for the moment to link this disappearance to the bodies which have been found.
Wayne Green, whose house is on the edge of the water, near the place of research, is not surprised by this drama. “We regularly see people being landed by boats on the shore near our home. There were some again last week at my neighbor’s,” he said, noting that the weather was particularly cold and windy on Thursday, and it was snowing. “They are often Afghans or Pakistanis. Some smugglers transport anything to make money, be it weapons, drugs or people,” he adds.
It will be necessary to wait for the results of the autopsy and toxicological analyzes to determine the cause of death. The grisly discovery was made around 5 p.m. Thursday after the boat in question was spotted by a military helicopter.
On site, near the Yellow and Saint-Regis Islands, a Sûreté du Québec helicopter landed in a marshy area in the middle of the morning, before flying over a portion of Yellow Island for several minutes. Several boats, including those of the Akwesasne Fire Department, the RCMP and the Akwesasne Mohawk Police Service, aided by volunteer boaters, were searching near the shores of the two islands. When they returned to shore around 11:30 a.m., the search participants appeared to have recovered a small body, hidden under a white tarp.
The fact that this tragedy comes a week after the closure of unofficial border checkpoints between Canada and the United States, including Roxham Road, has not escaped anyone’s notice. In a press briefing, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau did not want to establish a direct link between the tightening of border measures and this tragedy.
“There is an ongoing investigation, and I don’t want to jump on the speculation [sic] and unconfirmed facts that are going around,” he said at a press briefing in Moncton, New Brunswick, on Friday. “It will take a good understanding of what happened to be able to […] take the best measures to protect vulnerable people,” added the Prime Minister.
All this comes in fact barely seven days after the agreement reached between Ottawa and Washington to close the Roxham Road crossing, used by thousands of migrants to enter Canada irregularly to seek asylum. . The breach was closed the same evening at midnight, a situation that François Legault described as “a very good victory” for Quebec.
In Quebec, Minister François Bonnardel sent his thoughts to the community of Akwesasne on Friday. “There is an ongoing investigation, we are still waiting for the details. The SQ is in support. We are monitoring the situation closely,” he explained without giving further details. Prime Minister François Legault, for his part, spoke of a “horrible drama”.
Québec solidaire immigration critic Guillaume Cliche-Rivard spoke of “terrible news”. The immigration lawyer hopes that the authorities will take an interest in smugglers who enrich themselves by putting the lives of people in danger.
“We don’t know exactly what happened today, but most likely someone arranged this crossing, most likely someone got rich, and obviously it wasn’t safe. These are things that I hope will be investigated so that the smugglers are brought to justice,” he said. “If people are not allowed to go through regular border crossings, they will continue to cross borders by increasingly dangerous routes. These human tragedies can be avoided,” he said.
PQ leader Paul St-Pierre Plamondon speaks of a “shattering human drama”. He points out that “there is limited information,” but that “governments have a responsibility to people who are clearly putting their lives at risk, and losing their lives in circumstances that we don’t. can not accept as a company. »
Liberal Virginie Dufour lamented the “appalling situation.” “It really is an immeasurable drama that one would not want to have to comment on,” she said. “This tragedy is unbelievably sad. […] No one should go through such an ordeal, ”said the mayor of Montreal, Valérie Plante.
By the end of January, Mohawk police in Akwesasne had already received complaints about “suspicious individuals” in the village of Saint-Regis (Kana: takon). Officers then went to the scene before locating four people identified as “foreign nationals”, who were subsequently transferred to Immigration Canada teams.
At that time, local police had urged their community to “be aware of their surroundings, especially those residing near a river system.”
“Persons involved in human smuggling attempted to use the shores of the St. Lawrence in the Kana: takon and Tsi Snaihne areas. Human trafficking is a crime; not only does this pose serious health and safety concerns for the person(s) committing the act, but it endangers the entire community of Akwesasne,” the police force said at the time.
What’s more, in early March, an American smuggler received a five-year prison sentence for human trafficking after helping Indian nationals cross from Canada to the United States via the Saint-Laurent, in the same area. In April 2022, this smuggler’s boat sank while on the St. Lawrence River, a tributary of the river. The nationals had to be rescued by the Mohawk Police Service.