During the summer, high-powered, stripped-down john boats race the waters around the St. Lawrence River’s Cornwall Island smuggling cut-rag tobacco into Quebec in the dead of night.
In the winter, it’s snowmachines pulling sleds.
The island is near perfect for such trafficking.
The Akwesasne Mohawk Territory, the epicentre for moving human cargo and contraband tobacco, sits on Cornwall Island, where it straddles the Canada-U.S. border and has territory in Quebec, Ontario and New York State.
The bodies of eight migrants have been pulled from the St. Lawrence River in the Quebec section of Akwesasne, according to authorities, while a 30-year-old man described by friends and family as a local human smuggler remains missing.
Six bodies were recovered on Thursday night, while the body of one adult and a child were recovered on Friday.
If anything, this should cause concern and merit closer intelligence, especially since Quebec’s Roxham Road was officially shut down when U.S. President Joe Biden recently visited our nation’s capital.
During the time this unsanctioned border crossing was being played, some 40,000 illegal border crossers crossed into Canada via the United States.
The victims were of Indian and Romanian descent were attempting to enter the United States from Canada, said Lee-Ann O’Brien, deputy chief of the Akwesasne Mohawk Police Service. The bodies included two children under the age of three, both Canadian citizens.
The missing man, Casey Oakes, was last seen boarding a small, light-blue boat at 9:30 p.m. on Wednesday, wearing a black vest, black face mask and black toque, according to a press release from Akwesasne police.
Joe Oakes, the man’s great-uncle, said his nephew was “probably bringing those guys across,” referring to the people whose bodies were found.
Oakes said his nephew made this kind of trip often – once every week or every other week – carrying migrants from Canada to the U.S. for money, as do others in the community. He said there was bad weather on Wednesday night when Casey boarded his brother’s boat. “They know the river, but he probably just couldn’t handle it that night,” he said.
In April 2022, six Indian nationals were rescued from a sinking boat in the St. Regis River, which runs through Akwesasne Mohawk Territory. A seventh person spotted leaving the vessel and wading ashore was later identified as a U.S. citizen. U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials described what happened as a human smuggling incident.
On Friday, Akwesasne police said the first body was located around 5 p.m. Thursday in a marsh area. They said the area was searched further by a police marine unit with the help of the Canadian Coast Guard and the Hogansburg Akwesasne Volunteer Fire Department.
Air-support units with the Quebec provincial police and Ontario Provincial Police were expected to assist with the investigation.
In February, local police reported an increase in human smuggling into the Mohawk territory.
“The nature of human smuggling and recent weather conditions have resulted in our first responders being put at risk when completing life-saving events,” the police force said in a news release back then.
“In the past few days, immigrants have required transportation to the hospital, which not only is a concern for their health, but also reduces our own ambulance availability in Akwesasne.”
Hardly a week goes by that the Cornwall Regional Task Force, a joint operation representing the RCMP, the Canada Border Services Agency, the Cornwall Police Service, the OPP and the Ontario Ministry of Finance, doesn’t throw a wrench into tobacco smuggling.
Its job is to enforce the law along Cornwall Island’s regulated and unregulated borders, gather intelligence, interdict smuggling operations, and conduct investigations into the illicit flow of black-market tobacco.
The focus now, as the ice moves out, is the high-powered john boats driven by men wearing black.