Friday, September 7, 2007

The Invisible Border: Denial of Treaty Rights for Natives on Canadian-U.S. Border

The border crossing issues basically shouldn't be an issue. Various treaties, including, for Anishinaabe (Ojibwe/Chippewa) peoples, the Jay Treaty, make it clear that status cards from certain indigenous tribes are as valid as any other national ID.

However, my personal experience is that border crossings either go very smoothly, or very hard. I've had my van tossed and the dogs called out simply because one agent didn't want to believe that I was visiting a friend on a reserve for the afternoon--or so he said.

By the time even his supervisor was sick of his shenanigans, the "tossing" had left nice clothing jammed down in a greasy tool area, plus other problems. On the other hand, in commuting between NY and Mohawk reserves, using the favored Mohawk crossing, things have gone very well.

The short distance between the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol and the Canada Border Services Agency can seem like no man's land to many Native North Americans who attempt to pass freely across the border. Forced by U.S. law to show identification issued by a country from which one does not accept citizenship is one thing. It is outright humiliating to be told that one's tribal or First Nations-issued identification means ''nothing'' to a border agent. A recent incident at an Ontario border crossing sparked controversy in Canada, but with the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative requiring passports for all travelers entering the states imminent, the story should have raised more eyebrows here in the midsection of Turtle Island.

Brandon Nolan, a professional Ojibway hockey player (and son of Ted Nolan, a well-known National Hockey League playmaker and coach), said he was harassed and denied entry into his native Canada in August by a pair of customs officials. According to media reports, Nolan presented a New York state driver's license and a First Nation status card. The license, said one officer, did not provide proof of U.S. residence, and the status card meant ''nothing'' to him. Nolan was sent back to the United States and it was suggested he try another port of entry, specifically the crossing at ''Cornwall.'' The guard referred to the only customs house in Canada located on Native territory, on Cornwall Island, Ontario (known locally by its Mohawk name, Kawennoke). Nolan was offended by the comment, aware that the port at Akwesasne is often associated with drug smuggling and other illegal activities. ''I was treated like a criminal,'' the young man said.

This sentiment is common among residents of the Akwesasne territory. Mohawks comprise three-quarters of the border crossers there, according to a study conducted by Transport Canada, and often experienced similar incidents. Despite a traffic lane designated specifically for Akwesasne Mohawks, complaints of harassment by customs officers continue.

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