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Migrant death toll rises to 8 after bodies of child, adult found near Quebec/U.S. border

Police in Akwesasne say victims were trying to enter the United States illegally from Canada
The search is expected to continue today after six bodies were discovered Thursday in the St. Lawrence River near Akwesasne, Que. The Quebec provincial flag flies in Ottawa on June 30, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Police in the Mohawk Territory of Akwesasne said Friday they had found the bodies of two more people, including an infant, who were among a group of migrants who died trying to cross into the United States.

Authorities on Thursday had found the bodies of five adults and one child — members of two families of Romanian and Indian descent — in a marshy area of the St. Lawrence River. Akwesasne straddles the Canada-U.S. border and parts of the territory are in Ontario, Quebec and New York state.

The child discovered Friday was a Canadian citizen and a member of the Romanian family, Akwesasne Mohawk Police Chief Shawn Dulude told reporters. The body of an adult woman believed to be an Indian national was also recovered.

He said the eight people who died are believed to have been attempting illegal entry into the United States from Canada.

Police, he said, were still looking for 30-year-old Akwesasne resident Casey Oakes, who was last seen Wednesday operating a boat that was found next to the bodies of the migrants. Dulude said it was too early to say whether the missing man and the dead migrants are connected.

“At the present time we don’t know,” he said. “We are searching for him.”

On Friday, the Akwesasne Mohawk Police marine unit, with assistance from Quebec provincial police, the RCMP and the Hogansburg Akwesasne Volunteer Fire Department, searched the river in the part of Akwesasne in Quebec. Later in the day, search and rescue boats could be seen slowly cruising the marshy banks of the islands within the river, as chunks of ice occasionally floated past.

Tony Jackson, a 31-year-old Akwesasne resident, was tending a bonfire next to the river, where he and two friends watched a police helicopter make slow passes over the shoreline. Jackson said he went to school with Oakes and the two played sports together.

“It’s a small community, so we all knew each other,” he said.

Jackson said boating in Akwesasne is a way of life, and that many people regularly use boats to go from the Canadian to the U.S. side of the community. He said the weather on Wednesday, when Oakes was last seen, was calm during the day but later turned rough. “The east wind around here creates a lot of waves, five feet tall, maybe taller,” said Jackson. He said he believed Oakes’s boat was less than six metres long.

Crossing the river on a little boat with many people on board, “that called for disaster,” he said.

While he never heard Oakes talk about transporting migrants, Jackson said he has personally witnessed groups of them crossing through fields with bags in hand, adding that he has also occasionally seen boats carrying large groups of people across the river. Once on the Quebec side of Akwesasne, he said, the border is not far by foot.

“A couple of times in one month, you’ll see a couple of them walking down the road with all their bags,” he said.

Mohawk police said they are working with Immigration Canada and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to try to identify the victims and determine their status in Canada.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reacted to the initial discovery of six bodies on Friday morning, telling reporters in Moncton, N.B., “our hearts go out to the families of the individuals who perished; this is a heartbreaking situation, given the young child that was among them.”

He was asked whether the deaths were related to the recent immigration agreement between Canada and the United States — which closed unofficial ports of entry to would-be refugees seeking asylum in Canada. In response, he said he didn’t want to speculate.

“We have to understand properly what happened and do whatever we can to minimize the chances of it happening again.”

Akwesasne police say there have been 48 incidents of people trying to cross illegally into Canada or into the United States through the Mohawk territory since January, and most of them have been of Indian or Romanian descent.

The territory is known for being a transit point for the trafficking of humans and contraband because of its location. And in February, police in Akwesasne 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 lifesaving events,” the police force said in a news release at the time. “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.”

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.

—Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press

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