Tracing the history of smuggling across the St. Lawrence River

In the Akwesasne territory divided by the St. Lawrence River, colonial history has shaped generations of smuggling across the water, from alcohol to cigarettes to people. Akwesasne people who live here share the world of the river they know.

For decades, people have used the river to smuggle everything from booze to desperate migrants

A man wearing a bright yellow jacket with reflective patches, sunglasses, white gloves, a ski mask and a brown knit hat, sits in a boat floating on a river and points to his left.

The fishing skiff cut east through the confluence of the St. Regis and St. Lawrence Rivers, as Darren George, sitting by the prow, gestured out over the waters and said this was likely the spot the Indian and Romanian families capsized during a stormy night in late March.

Here, the St. Lawrence runs in a thick and deep vein between two islands.

"See how different, how strong the current is there?" said George.

There was a time that he moved contraband across this river. George is now a master builder who's left his imprint throughout Akwesasne — from the hand-laid stone fence of a riverfront house to the new, gleaming office building housing the tribal government that administers the U.S. side of this divided territory.

He knows the world of the river.

Following a familiar route

The Akwesasne districts of St. Regis Village and Syne flowed brown against grey sky along the far southern shore, as the skiff aimed east between St. Regis Island, to its port, and Yellow Island ahead, to starboard.

About five kilometres downstream from here is where searchers found several bodies late last month, in a stretch seeded with marshes and smaller channels, breaking off and joining the big river on its way to the ocean.

The two families attempting to cross into the U.S. from Canada set off in a small boat officials believe was piloted by a man from Akwesasne. The boat entered turbulent waters on the night of Wednesday, March 29. Westerly gusts of wind fuelled waves that swelled to over a metre and a half, according to George.

"It was really, really windy that day … Real bad," he said.

"You see how much water is going to hit them, there's no island to block them. Maybe the water came over the back of the boat, the big waves."

The families followed a familiar route previously taken by others with the same nationalities, according to court records in Canada and the U.S.

WATCH | Sharing the secrets of the St. Lawrence:

A river of secrets: Akwesasne’s history with smuggling

2 days ago

Duration 8:30

The St. Lawrence River has been a blessing and a curse for the Mohawk Nation of Akwesasne, which straddles the Canada-U.S. border. From tobacco to alcohol and now humans, the river has been a smuggling route for generations. CBC’s Jorge Barrera shares details of the waterway’s role in the community.

Based on these accounts, individuals pay smuggling networks anywhere between $5,000 to $35,000 per person for clandestine passage into the U.S. Expectant passengers then wait for the signal in Cornwall, Ont., motel rooms while brokers on the mainland hire boatmen to ferry them across the water.

Cash drives these networks and leads some brokers to cut corners when experienced boatmen with large boats can go for a premium, said George.

In this world, some human smugglers take advantage of community members who struggle with substance abuse. They offer quick cash and hire them for a few hundred dollars, so the broker can take a bigger cut of the cash, said George.

"That happens a lot," he said.

"Why should I give you 1,000 bucks? I can get him for $200 and he'll do it."

Searchers on a boat in the water.

Searchers discovered the first six bodies on March 30 while searching for someone else — a local man named Casey Oakes whose family reported him missing to police. Oakes, 30, was last seen launching into the St. Lawrence River on a small light blue boat the night before. Police say Oakes was connected to the failed human smuggling attempt.

Some community members say Oakes didn't own a boat and struggled with addictions for years. They question why someone would hire him to smuggle people in the dark through conditions even the most experienced boat people in the community would avoid.

George said he wouldn't speculate on who did what that night, but, given the weather, he said he wouldn't have launched into the water.

At the skiff's tiller is one of the last true fishers from the community.

He and George have been friends for years, and though he wouldn't reveal his name, he spoke about landing monster sturgeons pulled from the deep and leaving RCMP boats in his wake during his days running tobacco.

As the two men talk, their chatter carries an air of an insider's code that only experience on these waters can crack.

"It's a way of life. It's not always just been smuggling," said George. "We beaver hunt, we muskrat hunt … fishing."

A map shows how the Akwesasne territory is divided by the St. Lawrence River and the Canada-U.S. border.

Colonial geopolitics, industrial pollution

Akwesasne, with a population of about 27,000 people, sits about 120 km west of Montreal and its territory spreads across the Ontario-Quebec and New York State borders.

Its history and territory have been shaped and marred by the colonial geopolitics that molded North America and the industrial machinery that powered it.

The people of Akwesasne are part of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, which mostly sided with the British during the American Revolution. They were driven from their homelands after the 1783 Treaty of Paris.

"We were forced to live as refugees along the St. Lawerence River," said Doug George-Kanentiio. He is Darren George's brother, an author and the former editor of a local newspaper called Akwesasne Notes.

Despite the blood expended by the Confederacy in support of Great Britain, imperial bureaucrats never bothered to consult their Indigenous allies before drawing the line through Akwesasne's territory.

George says the border Great Britain forced on the land to establish Canada and the United States "went through the heart of Akwesasne."

An older man wearing a black leather jacket and a grey farmers cap stands on the bank of a river gesturing to the water behind him.

Then, the machinery of industrial development devastated the lands and waters.

There was a time when the people of Akwesasne lived off fish caught in the St. Lawrence and other rivers running through its territory that are fed by the Adirondack mountains.

"I remember growing up here, you'd go into the village of St. Regis and almost every home along the river had a fish box," said Mama Bear, a Bear Clan Mother, which is a leadership role in the Haudenosaunee traditional governance structure.

"And you could go trade for meat or butter and cream in exchange for fish … You'd choose your favourite fish, whether it's walleye or perch. You'd bring that home, you cook it up and eat it and that was living off the land. Now, I hardly ever see a fish box."

The construction of dams and the St. Lawrence Seaway throughout the 1900s destroyed fishing grounds. Industrial development around Akwesasne's territory in the form of a General Motors foundry that made aluminum cylinder heads and an aluminum production plant poisoned the lands and waters with Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and other chemicals.

"There was a subsequent loss of our relationship with the natural world," said George-Kanentiio. "Where formerly you could be self-reliant by harvesting the waters and planting the soil, that was no longer possible."

Pink and blue clouds fill the sky at sunset over the silhouetted buildings of an industrial complex.

'We are water people'

Three rivers run through Akwesasne — the St. Lawrence, the Raquette and the St. Regis. These waters continue to be an integral part of Akwesasne's identity, said Marjorie Skidders, editor of Indian Time, the local weekly newspaper.

Most people in Akwesasne know how to swim and children are raised on the rivers, she said.

"We are water people. We respect that. I try and teach that to my children and grandchildren, to look at the power of the river and what it can do," she said.

Skidder's father lived off the river as an outfitter and his customers would come from as far south as Mississippi to go fishing for bass, perch, walleye, muskies and whatever was in season.

Then came studies and warnings in the 1980s not to eat the fish because they were poisoned by the surrounding industries with PCBs and other chemicals.

"Seeing my father be crushed like that, his livelihood ended then," said Skidders. "But it wasn't only his livelihood, it was the livelihood of many people."

A woman with short, white hair wearing a jean jacket, a pink collared shirt and a beaded necklace stands in front of a body of water.

The toxins permeated the waters, the land. Some community farmers stopped growing corn — one of the staples of the Haudenosaunee — and studies detected PCBs in the breast milk of women who lived there.

Now the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency manages the cleanup at three superfund sites — its designation for areas representing environmental emergencies and natural disasters — around the territory.

Smuggling revived

As livelihoods collapsed in the 1980s, an old trade, smuggling, was revived.

Where once the product was baskets, cows and alcohol during prohibition, rising sin taxes on cigarettes in Canada sparked the era of tobacco runs in the 1990s.

Big Tobacco would export Canadian-made cigarettes to the U.S., then smuggle them back into Canada primarily through Akwesasne. Canadian law enforcement at the time admitted internally that it couldn't control the river or get a true handle of the scale of the problem and the cash it generated.

A Canada Revenue Agency intelligence threat assessment from 1991 said cigarette smuggling had developed into a multimillion-dollar enterprise.

"The RCMP admit, even with the large police presence on the Akwesasne reserve … Illicit commercial smuggling of cigarettes continues," it said.

The assessment, shared with Canada's spy agency, noted that "aliens" were also smuggled through the territory.

LISTEN | The problem of human smuggling on the St. Lawrence:

The Current19:43Deaths in St. Lawrence River highlight problem of human smuggling

Eight people, including two small children, died in the St. Lawrence River near the Mohawk Territory of Akwesasne last week, while trying to cross from Canada into the U.S. Matt Galloway talks to Marjorie Skidders, editor of the Indian Time Newspaper in Akwesasne; and François Crépeau, a professor at McGill University's Faculty of Law, who served as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants from 2011 to 2017.

Skidders says the tobacco era cost the community the lives of young men who died after falling through the ice or drowning while running cartons of cigarettes from one shore to another. She says Akwesasne still carries these scars.

"On the flip side, we still practice our ceremonies … We still have our songs and our dances," she said.

"We have that and we hold it strong and close to us and we do everything we can to make that flourish."

'Survival is sovereignty'

Sitting on a wooden chair inside a yurt, the outline of a bear on a tapestry hanging on the wall behind her, Mama Bear pauses for a moment to consider the definition of the word smuggling.

"To me smuggling can be an act of sovereignty. However, if it brings harm to the people, then it's not sovereignty. It has a definition created by an outside government to criminalize our people," said Mama Bear.

A woman wearing sunglasses and a white sweater wrap stands on a deck.

"So to me, smuggling is a hard one to define. It's a general term, but it creates commerce. People are just doing what they need to do in order to survive. Survival is sovereignty."

The movement of people began to grow as the tobacco trade waned due to constant government pressure on both sides of the border and tobacco runners undercutting each other on the price per carton.

Akwesasne Police say they've intercepted about 80 people crossing the territory to sneak into the U.S. since January.

One territory, one government

George-Kanentiio says the only way to control the river is to put the whole territory under one Akwesasne government.

"We want to be governed by one singular Mohawk Nation Council," he said. "The solution is immediate and it's obvious: empower the Mohawks to have the unilateral jurisdiction to control this type of activity."

Currently a band council governs the Canadian side of the territory and tribal council administers the U.S. Each side has its own police force.

Akwesasne is likely the most policed area north of the U.S.-Mexico border.

A neon green tint is cast over a night-vision image of two men in police uniforms, one using binoculars, the other with his back to the camera.

The RCMP, Ontario Provincial Police, Sûreté du Québec and Canada Border Services Agency monitor Akwesasne's Canadian borders. On the American side sits U.S. Border Patrol, Customs and Border Protection Agency, Homeland Security Investigations, New York State Police and the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Yet, almost every day, sometimes in broad daylight and often operating in connection with organized crime and human smuggling networks, Skidders says boats carry human cargo from shore to shore.

And these human smuggling networks bring fear.

"If I were to say I saw somebody coming off a boat a mile down the river and call it in, would they come after me? I think that's the fear, a personal safety fear," Skidders said.

"We know it is larger than ourselves, larger than Akwesasne."

A dock juts out into the fog-covered water of a placid river.


Jorge Barrera


Jorge Barrera is a Caracas-born, award-winning journalist who has worked across the country and internationally. He works for CBC's investigative unit based out of Ottawa. Follow him on Twitter @JorgeBarrera or email him

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