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Mohawk Protests Close U.S.-Canada Border Crossing

Canadian officials have barricaded a bridge linking northern New York and Ontario. The border crossing over the St. Lawrence River is a major trade route, with more than 2 million vehicles crossing every year.

The bridge also links the two halves of a Mohawk reservation. The bridge was barricaded after Mohawks protested a plan to arm Canadian border agents.

Brandon White, spokesman for the Mohawk reservation that straddles this border, says the decision to close the route split families and neighbors.

"On a typical day, they're crossing the bridge five, six times a day — you know, to go get groceries, to go to work, to drop their kids off at school," he says.

U.S. and Canadian officials have been beefing up security along the northern border since Sept. 11.

This standoff began brewing almost a month ago, as news circulated that Canada planned to arm all officers along the U.S. border for the first time.

The border station here sits on sovereign Mohawk territory — and the proposal sparked angry protests, like the one shown in a YouTube video posted in mid-May. Tribal elders denied reporters access to the protest.

Local Mohawks, like Jennifer Boots, say it is not just a question of sovereignty. The checkpoint sits in the middle of the reservation's biggest residential neighborhood.

"There has been tension, and my fear is that if they start shooting, bullets have a way of going astray," she says.

Tensions between Mohawks and governments on both sides of the border have been simmering for decades — occasionally flaring into violence.

The vigils here have been peaceful, but on June 1, Canadian customs agents left their offices, locked the doors and closed the border — saying they felt threatened by the crowd of protesters.

Speaking on CTV television, Peter Van Loan, Canadian public safety minister, said his officers will not return without their guns.

"They'll have to accept armed border officers there," he said. "And 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."

The Mohawk reservation is also a major smuggling route for marijuana and illegal migrants coming to the U.S., and for cigarettes going north.

In the past, these disputes have taken on a distinctly racial tone.

But Van Loan's threat to mothball this trade route permanently has also angered white leaders in the Ontario city of Cornwall, where Scott Armstrong heads the local Chamber of Commerce.

"I didn't think it was terribly well-thought-out," he says. "I thought it was completely reactionary. It was kind of like, 'I'm going to take my ball and go home.' "

Opposition critics in Canada's Parliament, including Liberal MP Todd Russell, have also blasted the government for failing to negotiate with the Mohawks.

"Our trade and transportation relations with the United States don't need the blunt stick," he says. "And our relations between government and aboriginal peoples certainly don't need the blunt stick. When will the minister put down his stick and pick up the telephone and start talking to the Mohawks of Akwesasne?"

So far, those talks have not taken place, and Mohawk spokesman White says his people are preparing to live with the bridge closure for a long time.

As part of their protest, they have organized a volunteer ferry service of skiffs and pontoon boats to carry Mohawks across the St. Lawrence River — effectively bypassing Canada's blockaded bridge.

"This issue is leading our community to go back to the way things were decades ago — to go back to the river," he says.

So far, Canadian officials have not blocked the ferries, but Mohawks only allow their own tribal members to use them.

Until the dispute is settled, other travelers have to drive nearly an hour to reach the next U.S.-Canada border crossing.

Brian Mann reports for North Country Public Radio.

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Brian Mann
Brian Mann is NPR's first national addiction correspondent. He also covers breaking news in the U.S. and around the world.