It was 20 years ago that 600 members of the Akwesasne Mohawk community near Cornwall thanked police for their bravery. The entire community showed up at a special recognition and award night in April 1990 on the reserve.
Every person wished to show their support of police actions and gave each of the force’s 11 members the Tree of Courage, their highest honour. Officers wore the small silver oval shaped medal, with the turquoise coloured tree emblazoned in the middle, proudly above their uniform pocket.
Commissioned by the band council, it was a true symbol of community support. Officers wore it not so much in recognition of their own hazardous duty, but as a visual sign of the respect the community holds for them. It is this mindset that today’s Akwesasne leaders must keep in mind. All law enforcement personnel, border and police officers are there to protect everyone.
When I visited the Akwesasne First Nation and border services facility on Cornwall Island in the summer of 1990, the local issue was a dispute with Mohawks on the American side. They had declared the First Nations reserves in Ontario, Quebec and New York to be a single sovereign nation. Along with the declaration, of course, was considerable pressure from a few criminals intent upon building an illegal casino on the US side of the self-proclaimed territory.
At that time the Mohawks on the Canadian side wanted nothing to do with this but a few of the criminal element brought intimidation to bear. This included fire-bombing homes and random shots with AK47s at patrolling Akwesasne Police officers who, being outgunned, asked for assistance from police on all sides of the three borders. Thereafter an uneasy peace existed, as long as there were police from Ontario, RCMP, Quebec, New York State and Akwesasne.
Amongst all the clamour was a chainlinked, barbed wire topped Customs post where a group of Canada Customs officers worked to prevent smuggling and protect our borders from the very people who would harm Canadians. They bravely did their jobs, unarmed, in an area that had all the trappings and appearance of a Vietnam-era security perimeter adjacent to the infamous DMZ.
It felt oppressive to cross the border, especially in light of the numerous Canadian and US news flashes about the tense situation. I was immediately struck by the mindless absurdity of the criminal element. They wanted to build an illegal casino to attract the general public to a militant reserve to spend lots of money. This attitude reflected a tragic comedy built with little forethought. It was just action, reaction, confrontation and intimidation from a group of dispossessed adventure seekers.
Fast forward almost 20 years and we find an equally oppressive atmosphere created by a new group intent upon illegally importing cigarettes through the same Akwesasne territory, but the dynamics have changed dramatically. Today some Canada Border Services Agency officers are armed, ready to intervene and have thus far proven very effective. They have made record breaking seizures of drugs and contraband at the Windsor and Sarnia ports of entry. The newly armed officers no longer have to concern themselves with running for cover and calling other law enforcement agencies for help.
Since the old system of intimidation has been seriously hampered, the new agenda has changed to militant blockades. All this was very predictable; in fact, the Akwesasne situation was one of the main catalysts in arming CBSA officers in the first place. Suddenly it wasn’t so easy to use subtle intimidation. Larger amounts of contraband are being confiscated and criminal profits are drying up.
The unfortunate part of all this is the fear by law-abiding Akwesasne residents that the old days of shootings and fire-bombings may return. It’s the fear of armed conflict that has obviously motivated them to turn out in large numbers to control the government side of the equation, rather than attempt to control the criminal minority amongst them.
More needs to be done to help them. Canada needs a more robust border agency ready to patrol the entire US/Canada border area. The officers need enhanced governance of their activities and (probably) an appropriate oversite mechanism similar to those in place at most of this country’s police agencies. The agency also needs a self generated criminal investigation branch, rather than having to rely upon local police agencies.
Given the past track record at this troubled crossing, what has happened can be no surprise. What I do find surprising is the sudden fortitude being demonstrated in Ottawa. Finally there appears to be a light at the end of a very long tunnel. Perhaps the good folks from the Akwesasne could take a minute to present a Tree of Courage medal to all those CBSA officers who have bravely hung in there all those years... unarmed and unappreciated.