In 1783, Great Britain and the nascent United States signed the Treaty of Paris ending the Revolutionary War. An impact of this agreement that did not concern the signatories was to the existing Mohawk community of Akwesasne, which was crudely divided at 3 different places by the new International boundary on the 45th parallel. Nearly two and a half centuries later, the community remains divided, and over the past 9 weeks working in Akwesasne I have experienced what is merely a fraction of the inconvenience, invasion of privacy, and bureaucratic headache that citizens of Akwesasne have lived with for centuries.
Akwesasne is divided into three districts on the Canadian side, and one in the United State. Kawehnò:ke (Cornwall Island) sits in the St-Lawrence, under the jurisdiction of Ontario. Leaving the island to the North, you must pass through Canadian customs on the mainland. Leaving the island to the South, you must pass though US customs. Once on the US side, you pass through St Regis Mohawk Reservation. The other two Canadian districts (Kaná:takon and Tsi:Snaíhne) are both under the jurisdiction of Quebec but are only accessible by road from the US mainland.
(image taken from Akwesasne Travel)
There is no border post when you cross the border in or out of Kaná:takon or Tsi:Snaíhne, but the border nevertheless imposes itself through surveillance and bureaucracy. Before arriving in Akwesasne I naively thought “you must just get used to it”. But over and over again, I have seen how the border affects peoples lives and acts as a continuous thorn in the community’s side. On days that I work on the Quebec side I pass through customs at least 3 times, waiting in lines as long as 30 minutes, especially around schooltime when parents shuttle their kids across the border to school.
Wait times can also be longer than 30 minutes for any number of other reasons. One day a software malfunction slowed all US border crossings to a crawl, another day a manhunt meant that anyone driving a particular colour of car was being questioned or searched.
Delays at border crossings are annoying and have a real impact on people’s lives, but the delays are only the tip of the iceberg. The border also represents an interference in peoples lives through surveillance. At any time, the community is under watch from OPP, RCMP, Sûreté de Québec, NY State Troopers, County Sheriff’s, US border security, Canadian border security, and due to its location along the St. Lawrence River, US and Canadian coast guards.
It’s easy to write off the impositions of a border when it’s nothing more than a headache that bookends tropical vacations or weekend road trips to the USA. In Akwesasne however, people live in constant contact with the border as well the increased security and the daily invasions of privacy that accompany it. Akwesasne’s citizens did not decide to settle down along an international boundary, nor were they asked for their input or permission when the border was drawn up in 1783. The US and Britain had callous disregard for the sovereignty of the citizens of Akwesasne when the border was drawn, and the US and Canada continue to allow the border to intrude on the sovereignty of Akwesasne. Akwesasne is frequently caught in the crossfire of political or economic tensions between the two nations, and the community is forced to bear the cost of negative externalities caused by the border. My short experience in the community has given me a glimpse of the power of an International border and inspired respect towards the resiliency of Akwesasne as they remain fiercely independent and strongly united across the imposed international boundary that divides them.