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Past glory: Joe Regis, right, of Kahnawake hovers over New York while working on the Chase Manhattan Bank Building in 1960. (Courtesy of Bethlehem Steel)
Past glory: Joe Regis, right, of Kahnawake hovers over New York while working on the Chase Manhattan Bank Building in 1960. (Courtesy of Bethlehem Steel)

Why the Mohawks are no longer walking the high steel Add to ...

Pete Marquis doesn’t drink on his drive home from work any more. He dreams.

Night is falling over the I-87. With his callused hands resting on the steering wheel, Mr. Marquis peers down the darkening highway. He has been driving 590 kilometres between his home outside Montreal and his job in New York almost every week for 36 years.

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His flirtation with the speed limit has not dampened from his first trips, when he and a half-dozen, hot-blooded young friends would cram into the car and take turns at the wheel – steering with one hand and clutching a beer with the other. They would hit the road right after work on Friday afternoon, spend about 48 hours at home, then leave again Sunday at midnight and arrive back in New York in time for work in the morning.

Now, Mr. Marquis is 56, and the guys he once commuted with have stopped making the trip, leaving him to drive alone.

It is Sunday and he is on the road, but this time travelling in the opposite direction. On holiday, he is taking Cam, his 14-year-old grandson, back to Canada from a lacrosse tournament in New Jersey.

No longer accustomed to chatting when he drives, he lapses into silence as Cam sleeps in the seat beside him.

For more than a century, New York has been the main destination for ironworkers from Kahnawake, the Mohawk community on the south shore of the St. Lawrence.

Gerald Taiaiake Alfred, a professor of indigenous governance at the University of Victoria, grew up there and says the iron men represent something now rare in North America: economic independence. “Because of their particular skill set …,” he says, “they have the ability to pick and choose their job, so to speak.”

But the tradition is rapidly fading. A perfect storm of economics, at home and in New York, has made it easier – and more lucrative – for Mohawk youth to stay put. Barely 100 ironworkers still make the trip, at most one-fifth of those who once did. In a decade, there may be none.

It all began with a bridge

Ironworking requires a rare combination of strength, intelligence and courage. Tasked with laying the foundations and building the metal skeletons of buildings, workers handle the lifting, fixing and welding of hundreds of heavy steel beams – often while thousands of feet in the air.

The Mohawk tradition began in 1886 during construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway bridge across the St. Lawrence from Kahnawake to Montreal. First hired as day labourers, the locals soon proved adept at the dangerous work and later found themselves in demand elsewhere.

The border is no concern, thanks to Paul K. Diabo, who was arrested while working in Philadelphia during the 1920s for violating immigration laws. Deportation loomed, but the courts upheld the right of the Iroquois Confederacy under the Jay Treaty of 1794 to enter the United States freely. As a result, Mr. Marquis says, the Kahnawake impact is readily apparent. In the 1930s, hundreds of Mohawks worked on the Empire State and Chrysler buildings; in the early 1970s, the big project was the first World Trade Center – the last job for Joe McComber’s grandfather. Mr. McComber is now working on One World Trade Center, successor to the victim of the infamous 9/11 terror attack.

The publicity surrounding the project has sparked renewed interest in the Mohawk, who seem macho, venerated and high above the familiar First Nations struggle to be idle no more.

Yet, Mr. McComber is one of just a handful of Kahnawake men on the project. As well, he and Pete Marquis are both 56 – the same generation as most of the ironworkers. “There are only a couple of young guys doing it – maybe a dozen, half-dozen that I know,” he says during lunch. “It’s a hard life, this; it’s not for everybody.”

A steady stream of construction projects in New York, coupled with weak job prospects at home, long ensured that Kahnawake men could introduce their sons and grandsons to the trade. But that formula, undermined by changes on both counts, seems increasingly obsolete.

Big Apple’s ‘Little Kahnawake’

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