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"Everybody has a Voice"

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June 19, 2009

"Everybody has a Voice"

Images from the Mohawk community of Akwesasne

by Sandra Cuffe

KAWEHNOKE, AKWESASNE, MOHAWK TERRITORY–As part of a national border security plan slated for 2016, the Canadian government is arming all Canadian Border Service Agency (CBSA) agents.

The Canada-US border runs through the Mohawk community of Akwesasne. Like many other communities, the Mohawks have never given up their rights to the land, maintaining traditional government and sovereignty separate from the Canadian state.

Months ago, community representatives contacted the government to express concerns about giving 9mm guns to CBSA agents. In the past, instances of harassment and racial profiling have been reported, but the response was minimal. In June 2008, CBSA agents violently arrested two Mohawk grandmothers, one of whom suffered a heart attack. Both refused to recognize the legitimacy of the Canadian court in Mohawk Territory. Charges against one were dropped and the second was released with conditions.

After the government refused to reconsider its position, the community set a deadline of midnight on May 31 for a resolution to the conflict.

The government of Canada responded to the deadline by presenting the community with an ultimatum shortly before midnight. Akwesasne could either accept the arming of the CBSA or face the immediate closure of the two bridges—and the international border. Approximately 400 Akwesasne community members gathered around a sacred fire and announced their united decision: "No guns for the CBSA in Akwesasne!"

Public Safety Minister Peter Van Loan has not backed down from his position. "They'll have to accept armed border officers there. What we're looking at is a potential long closing, and as a result we are right now examining the long-term viability of that particular port of entry...and that includes moving it."

Sandra Cuffe is a vagabond freelance journalist, photographer and organizer originally from Coast Salish Territories. She is a contributing member of The Dominion and Media Co-op, and Honduras correspondent for UpsideDownWorld.org.

"What is the sound of colonialism collapsing?" asked retired Ardoch Algonquin First Nation Chief Robert Lovelace in a statement of support "in honour of the courageous people of Akwesasne." "[It] is the shuffle of paper as you pack up your things, unwilling to pacify bureaucrats with your signature..."
"They can't give them guns on their hips and expect us not to do anything about it. You don't fight with somebody your whole life and then give them a gun," said Stacey Boots, who was released from police custody on Monday, June 15 after his violent arrest at a blockade by members of the nearby Mohawk community of Tyendinaga as an act of solidarity with Akwesasne. "It's inevitable that someone's going to get shot."
"That statue is very significant," said Akwesasne community elder John Boots, pointing out the statue of Jake Ice (also known as Jake Fire) in front of the now-abandoned Customs and Immigration building. When the government of Canada imposed the Indian Act and Band Council system in Mohawk territory in the late 1800s, explained Boots, the traditional chiefs were jailed or killed. During a stand-off, "Jake Ice reached into his pocket for his tobacco pouch and the Dominion police shot him point blank."
"The term 'warrior' is a misnomer put in place by reporters," said John Boots. A misunderstood translation of Rotreskennraketie, the traditional Men's Council – more commonly known as the "Warrior Society" – is in fact the role defined by the Great Law of Peace for all traditional men. The Great Law is the constitution of the Six Nations Confederacy, which includes the Mohawk Nation. "They carry the responsibility to uphold our law," said Sakoietah of the traditional Men's Council in Akwesasne.
"It's the People who make the decisions here. If people don't want Customs here..." said Sakoietah of the traditional Men's Council. "Everybody has a voice. The youngest person might be the smartest person."
"Right now everybody is happy to wait it out. Look at everyone," said Akwesasne resident Jojo Francis, gesturing, from his place by the main fire at the crossroads of Kahwenoke, to the fires, the lacrosse game and the children playing. "They can wait all they want. We'll just play the Creator's game." The bridge between the US and Canada is visible in the background.

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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