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Harry and the Akwesasne People's Fire

posted by Sandra Akwesasne Topics: protest, Mohawk, CBSA

October 29, 2009

Harry and the Akwesasne People's Fire


With his CBSA helmet and raingear, honorary firekeeper "Harry" watches over the Akwesasne People's Fire on Kahwenoke ('Cornwall Island'). The fire has been burning at the main crossroads since May 1, 2009 and now, nearly six months later, a building constructed by community members so that elders and others may stay warm over the winter is nearly complete.

The Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) building, abandoned since June 1st, looms in the background. CBSA abandoned the post within the Akwesasne Mohawk reserve when residents announced their rejection of the Canadian government's plan to arm the CBSA agents on June 1st. Police shut down the international Seaway bridges and border crossing just minutes before midnight June 1st, as hundreds of Mohawk residents gathered to protest the imminent arming of CBSA agents within their territory.

The bridge and border crossing were re-opened in mid-July, when CBSA set up a makeshift post at the foot of the bridge over in the city of Cornwall, Ontario. After decades of racial profiling and harassment, Akwesasne residents have now been facing heavy fines and vehicle seizures by CBSA if after crossing into New York they do not immediately drive straight through the island and get in the often lengthy one lane line-up on the bridge to report to CBSA. Island residents are also obligated to wait in the line and go through Canadian customs even when only traveling from Kahwenoke into Cornwall for groceries, appointments, or to pick up their children from high school.

Some Akwesasne residents are avoiding Cornwall altogether. Some report to CBSA. Some do not. Many have faced stiff fines and vehicle seizures. Several Akwesasne residents have also been subject to harassment, arbitrary detentions, and criminal charges at the CBSA post in Cornwall.

Higher-ranking federal government officials have largely remained silent despite the ongoing conflict and human rights abuses, while CBSA negotiators walked out of the last [court-ordered!] meeting with Mohawk Council of Akwesasne representatives, alledging that they had not agreed to the presence of a MCA lawyer at the table. A meeting concerning ongoing harassment and vehicle seizures has been scheduled for December.

Meanwhile, community residents continue to prepare for winter and finish the new building, installing the insulation. Dinner is a community gathering almost every evening. And the Akwesasne People's Fire still burns.

Harry watches it all in silence.

- Sandra Cuffe

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