MASSENA — Canada plans to place its toll booth at the base of the Seaway International Bridge in Ontario, permanently removing it from Akwesasne Mohawk territory.
The bridge system begins in Massena on American soil, spans the St. Lawrence River to Mohawk land on Cornwall Island. Then, a second bridge on Mohawk land takes travelers from there to the City of Cornwall, Ontario.
The Canadian customs house was on Cornwall Island for decades, but in the summer of 2009, Akwesasne Mohawks protested a decision by the Canada Border Service Agency to arm all of its customs agents.
Mohawks said they were not consulted about the decision even though the bridge is on their sovereign land.
And they feared armed agents so near residential areas would be dangerous and escalate already tense relations between Canadian authorities and the island’s Native community.
The Mohawks say claims of alleged racial profiling and harassment by agents have not been addressed by border-service supervisors.
Canadian authorities deny the claims and said their agents did not feel safe manning the customs house unless they were armed.
A temporary customs-inspection site was created in the City of Cornwall, forcing anyone wishing to visit Cornwall Island to first drive into Cornwall, check in with customs then drive back across the Canadian bridge to the island.
Those who did not report were subject to seizure of vehicles that cost them $1,000 to recover.
Long lines at the border also created a bottleneck that has frustrated drivers ever since, as Canada struggled to find a customs solution.
But its plan to build and place a toll booth at the Cornwall Port of Entry in Cornwall is not sitting well with Mohawks who want to see the toll site back on Cornwall Island.
They say the existing customs house could easily and cheaply be refurbished into a toll site, and multiple lines for inspection would end the bottleneck of traffic.
Akwesasne Mohawk Council of Chiefs Grand Chief Mitchell said in a news release that the decision “will cause great economic harm to businesses and recreational facilities located in Akwesasne and hurt the economic relationship between the City of Cornwall and the Akwesasne community.”
The plan “is purportedly being made because that location will maximize revenue for the corporation. But putting the toll-booth plaza on Kawahno:ke (Cornwall Island) at the former Canada Border Service Port of Entry will still generate revenue for the Seaway Bridge.
“More importantly, it would also allow commerce and good will between Cornwall and Kawehno:ke to develop further,” Mitchell said.
Mohawks say Cornwall residents wanting to attend events on Cornwall Island would be charged an unfair $6.50 toll, which will further harm bridge users.