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Deal to reopen bridge fails

JOHNSON NEWSPAPERS
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CORNWALL ISLAND — Mohawk Council of Akwesasne officials say they were close to an agreement with the Canadian Border Services Agency that could have helped reopen the Seaway International Bridge before a Canadian customs union official, who called Mohawk protests on Cornwall Island an "act of terrorism," announced that customs agents would never return to their post on the island.


Mohawks Grand Chief Mike Mitchell and a number of district chiefs spent all day Tuesday working out terms for a possible agreement with CBSA President Stephen Rigby, Executive Vice President Luc Portelence and Director Barbara Hebert in the hopes that some resolution could be found to the month-long standoff that closed the bridges on June 1.


The agreement called for construction within the next two weeks of a temporary customs station in the city of Cornwall to allow the bridges to open and international traffic and trade to resume.


The temporary facility there would remain operational for four months, during which time trained border agents would carry the firearms the Canadian government has promised to equip all of them with by 2016.


At the end of that trial period, the Canadian customs station on Cornwall Island would reopen with unarmed agents for a second four month trial period.


"To provide for the safety and security of the customs facility and the Akwesasne community, additional law enforcement would be stationed at the Port of Entry," Mohawk officials said in a release. "They would have the full-time support of Mohawk Security Service, Akwesasne Mohawk Police Services and other law enforcement agencies, possibly the Royal Canadian Mounted Police."


The eight month test period would also give both sides the opportunity to hold talks about the underlying issues that led to the bridge closure and implement a number of proposed long-term solutions, such as providing cultural sensitivity training to border officers, creating a liaison to handle issues between Canada and the Akwesasne community and hiring a larger number of native border guards to work at the Cornwall/Massena crossing.


Canadian officials were reportedly amenable to the agreement and, while they were not certain they could agree to all of the terms laid out in Mohawk proposal, they promised to investigate the issue and continue a dialogue with the tribe.


But before the ink was dry on the version of the Mohawk proposal mailed out to Canadian officials Wednesday afternoon, Canadian Customs and Immigration Union President Ron Moran held a press conference stating that customs officers would not, under any circumstances, return to the Cornwall Island station.


"It needs to be clear in everyone's mind that the Custom's and Immigration Union has taken a categorical position and will never allow its members to work at the Cornwall Border Crossing unarmed again," Mr. Moran said. "People need to further understand that the events which led up to the office closing are such that the officers can never work at the current location again, armed or unarmed."


Mr. Moran is calling on Canadian Minister of Public Safety Peter Van Loan, who oversees the CBSA, to keep the Cornwall-Massena crossing closed until the situation is completely resolved.


"The office's historical tensions have always stemmed from the fact that the office was located on the reserve," union officials said in a statement. "Given that the current native-provoked situation is clearly irreconcilable, now, more than ever, the office must be moved off the island."


Moran's release said that the customs officers did not flee the station, as had been reported, but that CBSA leaders had made the decision to close the crossing and that "agency management informed the staff that they were to get ready to leave, pack their things and shut systems down as though they were never coming back."


The union characterizes the events leading up to the closure as "intimidation tactics" which "can only be described as a concerted act of terrorism."


The union's stance has thrown a wrench into the proposed settlement and some worry Mr. Moran's statements may undo what progress the sides had made in trying to get the bridge reopened.


"We were going to cancel the agreement altogether," Mr. Mitchell said.


Shortly after Moran's statements were made, Mr. Portelence called the grand chief to reassure him that CBSA was still hoping to resolve the problem.


Mohawk and Canadian officials plan to meet in Ottawa again today, but the union's stance may muddy the waters for both sides as they attempt to move forward with a solution.


"The union has taken a hard line position on this and we want to see what they're going to do about it," Mr. Mitchell said. "CBSA has committed themselves to enter into negotiations."

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