QUEBEC — Authorities in the Mohawk Territory of Akwesasne said an infant is missing after the bodies of six migrants of Indian and Romanian descent were pulled from the St. Lawrence River Thursday.
The bodies, including that of a child under three, were found in the water in the part of Akwesasne located in Quebec, Lee-Ann O'Brien, deputy chief of the Akwesasne Mohawk Police Service, said Friday. Akwesasne straddles the Canada-U.S. border and parts of the territory are in Ontario, Quebec and New York state.
The victims, she said, were trying to enter the United States illegally from Canada. The migrants were from two families, one of Romanian descent and the other composed of Indian citizens, she told reporters. The dead child was a member of the Romanian family, O'Brien added.
"The deceased included five adults and one child under the age of three who was a Canadian citizen," she said, adding that searchers found the child's Canadian passport. O'Brien said police found a second Canadian passport belonging to a missing infant who is also believed to have been part of the Romanian family.
O'Brien said the six bodies were located during a search for a 30-year-old man who was reported missing on Thursday. Casey Oakes of Akwesasne was last seen Wednesday around 9:30 p.m. boarding a small boat departing from the east end of Cornwall Island, located in the St. Lawrence River and on the Ontario side of the Mohawk territory.
"A vessel matching the description as being operated by Casey Oakes was located in the vicinity of the deceased persons," she said, adding that she couldn't confirm whether that boat had been used to transport the two families.
O'Brien said police were looking for any information about the whereabouts of Oakes, adding that she wasn't aware the man had a criminal record. The 30-year-old, however, was charged last year with two criminal counts: dangerous operation of a conveyance and assault with a weapon. He is due back in court in Valleyfield, Que., at the end of May for the case, which was investigated by the Akwesasne police.
The search continued Friday involving the Akwesasne Mohawk Police marine unit, with assistance from Quebec provincial police, the RCMP and the Hogansburg Akwesasne Volunteer Fire Department. 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.
O'Brien said the six bodies were transported to Montreal for post-mortem and toxicology tests, and Mohawk police say they are attempting to identify the victims and determine their status in Canada.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reacted to the discoveries on Friday, 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 changes 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.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 31, 2023.
Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press