It didn’t take long for the blame finger to be pointed, as advocates began claiming the death of eight migrants who drowned in a St. Lawrence River smuggling mishap off Cornwall Island was a direct result of the Roxham Road unregulated border crossing being shut down.

“It’s tough not to associate this with what happened at Roxham Road and the new Safe Third Country Agreement, and the overall sentiment that’s been pushed forward with all these agreements and talks,” Abdulla Daoud, director of the Montreal-based Refugee Centre, told the Montreal Gazette.

“After what happened last week, the sentiment that we are projecting to asylum-seeking communities is that Canada is no longer accepting people.”

Unfortunately, that is not true since there is nothing new about human smugglers using Cornwall Island as a jump-off point.

In fact, it’s a hot spot for human smuggling, with police making 48 separate interceptions involving 80 people trying to enter the United States illegally since January.

It’s just not something the police want to make public.

The Akwesasne Mohawk Territory, best known as a major centre for moving contraband tobacco, sits on Cornwall Island where it straddles the Canada-U. S. border, and has territory in Quebec, Ontario and New York State.

It would seem the perfect smuggling spot. The only criminal access to Quebec. Ontario and the U.S. is via water.

During the summer, therefore, high-powered Jon boats race the waters around Cornwall Island, smuggling cut-rag tobacco into Quebec in the dead of night.

In the winter, it’s snowmachines pulling sleds.

The bodies of eight migrants have been pulled from the St. Lawrence River in the Quebec section of Akwesasne while a 30-year-old man described by friends and family as a local human smuggler remains missing.

Police identified two of the Romanian migrants as 28-year-old Cristina (Monalisa) Zenaida Iordache and 28-year-old Florin Iordache, who was carrying Canadian passports for two young children under the age of three who were among the victims.

The identities of four Indian nationals have been tentatively identified from Indian sources as Praveen Chaudhary, 50, his wife Diksha, 45, Meet, 20, and daughter Vidhi, 24.

And as the latest numbers indicate, this should cause concern and merit closer intelligence, especially since Quebec’s Roxham Road has been officially shut down since U.S. President Joe Biden recently visited Ottawa.

During the time, this unsanctioned border crossing was being played, some 40,000  “unregulated refugees’ crossed into Canada via the United States.

The victims in Akwesasne, however, were attempting to enter the United States from Canada, said Lee-Ann O’Brien, deputy chief of the Akwesasne Mohawk Police Service.

The missing man, Casey Oakes, was last seen boarding a small, light-blue boat at 9:30 p.m. on Wednesday, wearing a black vest, black face mask and black toque, according to a press release from Akwesasne police.

Joe Oakes, the man’s great-uncle, said his nephew was “probably bringing those guys across,” referring to the people whose bodies were found.

Oakes said his nephew made this kind of trip often – once every week or every other week – carrying migrants from Canada to the U.S. for money, as do others in the community. He said there was bad weather on Wednesday night, when Casey boarded his brother’s boat. “They know the river, but he probably just couldn’t handle it that night,” he said.

In April 2022, six Indian nationals were rescued from a sinking boat in the St. Regis River, which runs through a Quebec portion of Akwesasne.

A seventh person, spotted leaving the vessel and wading ashore, was later identified as a U.S. citizen.

In February, local island police had reported an increase in human smuggling via the Mohawk territory.

“The nature of human smuggling and recent weather conditions have resulted in our first responders being put at risk when completing life-saving events,” the police force said in a news release back then.

Beyond the Akwesasne Mohawk Police, there is no full-time police presence in the Ontario and Quebec portion of the territory.

“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.”

Located off-island is the Cornwall Regional Task Force (CRTF), a joint operation representing the RCMP, the Canada Border Services Agency, the Cornwall Police Service, the OPP and the Ontario Ministry of Finance.

Its job is to enforce the law along Cornwall Island’s regulated and unregulated borders, gather intelligence, interdict smuggling operations, and conduct investigations into the illicit flow of black-market tobacco.

The focus now as the ice moves out will be the high-powered Jon boats driven by men wearing black, and smuggling cut-rag tobacco into Canada for illicit cigarette manufacturers in Quebec and Ontario.

And human smuggling too, of course, which is always there — with potential refugees often seen roaming the streets seeking passage out.


  • Mark Bonokoski

    Mark Bonokoski is a member of the Canadian News Hall of Fame and has been published by a number of outlets – including the Toronto Sun, Maclean’s and Readers’ Digest.