Rainbow Bridge border crossing at Niagara Falls, from Canadian side. Akwesasne Mohawk District Chief Steven Thomas was recently turned away, even though he was using a Canadian passport, because his vehicle had U.S. plates.

Mohawk Investigate After Akwesasne Chief Denied Entry Into Canada

Reuel S. Amdur

A common discrepancy between passport nationality and license plate origin got Akwesasne District Chief Akwesasne District Chief Steven Thomas turned away at the Canadian border last month, and the Mohawk Akwesasne are concerned.

En route to an Assembly of First Nations (AFN) meeting in Niagara Falls, Ontario, on July 10, Thomas was stopped at the Rainbow Bridge crossing and refused entry. The reason? While he presented a Canadian passport, his car has New York State license plates. Thomas lives in the Ontario section of the Akwesasne reserve, which straddles the boundaries of Ontario, Quebec and New York.

“I worked in the United States for 37 years and have always owned an American-plated vehicle,” he said, adding that even when occasionally stopped, “I have never had any issues in crossing at any of the New York-Canada borders in the past and have done so hundreds of times.”

It is not that rare for Indians who are not Canadian citizens to occasionally be denied entry, Akwesasne Grand Chief Abram Benedict told Indian Country Today Media Network.

“It happens a few times a year,” he said.

The Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) said there are two reasons for permitting such a vehicle to enter. The person may be transporting “householder personal effects” into or out of the country. Or the vehicle may enter in case of emergency “or unforeseen contingency,” according to information provided by the agency via e-mail. 

There have been rare cases like Thomas’s, in which the CBSA demands that the person go through the process of importing the vehicle, Benedict said. However, Thomas’s incident highlights a broader problem, he added.

"The fact is CBSA doesn't broadly recognize aboriginal rights when it comes to border crossings, and that's clearly what this case has demonstrated," Benedict told the Cornwall Standard-Freeholder.

Thomas cited the Jay Treaty of 1794, which has a clause confirming Indians’ free border-crossing rights. However, Canada’s Supreme Court has ruled that the treaty does not apply because Parliament didn’t ratify it—it was struck between Great Britain and the U.S.—and because in any case the War of 1812 would have abrogated it. The Treaty of Ghent, which ended that war, included a promise to restore Indian rights and a commitment to “engage” to do so “forthwith.” But the court found it was not definitive enough in its wording to compel Canada on the matter.

In June, Canada’s Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples issued a report, Border Crossing Issues and the Jay Treaty, acknowledging that border crossing protocol must be clarified.

“Means must be implemented to facilitate legitimate travel for day-to-day activities by First Nations people,” the report said, recommending that “the Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs appoint a special representative to explore further solutions to address Canada-U.S. border crossing challenges faced by First Nations communities across Canada.”

As for Thomas, he entered Canada the next day by way of the Cornwall border crossing, without difficulty, and drove to the AFN meeting.

“The ironic part of this denial was, I was on my way to attend the Assembly of First Nations for a border crossing presentation!” he said.

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