Residents of Akwesasne – the Mohawk territory straddling Quebec, Ontario, and the United States, woke up with one less headache this morning: they now have a dedicated priority lane at the Cornwall border crossing.
As part of a joint pilot project between the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) and the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne, the so-called “domestic” lane will now be open from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. every day for the next six months.
“The concept of a domestic lane has been talked about for several years,” Akwesasne Grand Chief Abraham Benedict said in a statement. “Wait times are a known contributor to many frustrations while crossing through the port. We hope that by implementing this pilot, wait times will be reduced.”
According to CBSA, the project intends to “create a smoother border crossing experience for all travelers at the CBSA Cornwall Port of Entry.
“The CBSA remains committed to ensuring that Indigenous peoples continue to be able to move within and between their communities, and are able to provide and access essential goods and services,” reads a news release issued Oct. 28.
Cornwall is the only port of entry with both local and international traffic.
Akwesasne Mohawks make up 70 per cent of the traffic at the border crossing, and must undergo questioning and customs checks just to access – or return to – their territory.
“[The domestic lane] will facilitate travel and improve the border crossing experience at the CBSA Cornwall Port of Entry, especially for local residents needing to cross on a regular basis,” CBSA President John Ossowski said in a press release.
“Whether that’s for school, shopping, or attending appointments.”
Those familiar with the situation will tell you the current border-crossing system creates headaches.
“From a traditional point of view, we’ve never left our territory,” explained Anenhaienton Wakenesiio, an Akwesasne resident and self-identified traditionalist. “So we’re not leaving Canada or the U.S. We’re our own.
“Doesn’t matter if we’re small – there are a lot of small countries out there, and I think we’re bigger than a lot of those small countries.”
Potential abuse of power by border agents, for example, is not a new concern.
In 2017, Jody Swamp was crossing from the Ontario side of Akwesasne with $300 worth of firecrackers n his car.
After he was searched, he was charged with violating the Customs Act, and with transporting explosives.
Two years later, a judge dropped the charges against Swamp.
In the ruling, the judge determined Swamp was travelling in Canada, so border guards had no right to conduct a search without reasonable suspicion.
“A weight was lifted off my shoulders, you know, having them come down on me for no reason,” Swamp told APTN News in April 2019.
Swamp is now the lead plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit alleging most Akwesasne residents have experienced discrimination, detention, or search and seizures at border checkpoints while travelling domestically.
“And every time they have to do that, they have to go through the border – and there’s this fear that exists of ‘what’s going to happen?’” Lawyer Cameron Fiske explained after filing the statement of claim in July 2019. “What’s going to happen to me when I go through the border of a country I’ve never left?”
The COVID-19 pandemic has reportedly slowed the class-action certification process, and the lawsuit remains in limbo.
But for those residing in Akwesasne, anticipation of issues with border agents remains.
“It’s annoying, you know? It’s an annoyance. You have to account for unknown time, the variables of each guard,” Wakenesiio explained.
“I’ve had border guards try to lecture me on the way the real world works, I’ve been searched, I’ve had my mail gone through, I’ve been patted down – so all of that’s happened,” he added. “Everyone’s got a story.”
“They’re an occupation, you know?” he added. “They’re an occupation of our land – they have all the guns, so we comply because they have all the guns.”
At the end of the six-month trial period, CBSA says the dedicated lane project will be reviewed to “determine if it will be modified or implemented permanently.”