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A team of rescue searchers look for victims on March 31 after a boat capsized and left eight people dead in the St. Lawrence River in the Quebec section of Akwesasne Mohawk territory.Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

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

The victims are believed to belong to two separate families, one of Indian nationality and one of Romanian descent, Akwesasne Mohawk Police Service Chief Shawn Dulude told a news conference. He said they were attempting to enter the United States from Canada. The bodies included those of two children under the age of three, both Canadian citizens of Romanian descent. Six bodies were discovered on Thursday, and the remaining two were found Friday.

Akwesasne straddles the Canada-U.S. border, and has territory in Quebec, Ontario and New York State. It is known for being a transit point for human and contraband smuggling because of its location.

The missing man, Casey Oakes, is considered a person of interest in the eight death investigations, although it remains unclear if he is connected to the tragedy, Mr. Dulude said. Mr. 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 tuque.

Joe Oakes, the man’s great-uncle, said his nephew was “probably bringing those guys across,” referring to the people whose bodies were found. Mr. Oakes said his nephew made this kind of trip every week, or every other week, carrying migrants from Canada to the U.S. for money.

He said there was bad weather on Wednesday night. “They know the river, but he probably just couldn’t handle it that night,” he said.

Tony Jackson, a friend of Casey Oakes, also said Mr. Oakes regularly helped people cross from Canada to the U.S.

“A lot of people do that around here. Sometimes it goes good, sometimes it goes bad. That’s how it is,” he said. “Someone offered him the opportunity and it was good money, good pay ... He was actually helping people escape to a better life. He liked doing that.”

The tragedy comes at a time of heightened attention to irregular border crossings between Canada and the U.S., after the countries renegotiated the Safe Third Country Agreement. The changes, which went into effect late last week, have closed unofficial ports of entry to would-be refugees seeking asylum.

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.”

When asked whether the deaths were related to the recent immigration agreement, he said he didn’t want to speculate.

France-Isabelle Langlois, director-general of the francophone branch of Amnesty International Canada, said the deaths at Akwesasne are a “preview” of the kinds of tragedies likely to result from closing Roxham Road, an irregular but relatively safe border crossing between New York State and Quebec where tens of thousands of migrants had entered Canada in recent years, before last week’s changes.

“We will witness the same kind of tragedy going in the other direction,” she said. “People will be forced to take this kind of very dangerous path.”

Abram Benedict, Grand Chief of the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne, said he was worried about an increase in human smuggling from the U.S. to Canada through his territory as a result of the expansion of the Safe Third Country Agreement.

“People would potentially feel that, with the closure of Roxham Road, their ability to enter into this country is now only left with situations where you’re smuggled in the darkness of night,” he said.

Authorities in Akwesasne have seen a heavy flow of irregular migration from Canada to the U.S. in recent months. Local police have intercepted 80 people in 48 separate incidents since January, Mr. Dulude said.

In February, the police force issued a news release warning that human smuggling was putting first responders in danger by involving them in more rescues. In April, 2022, six Indian nationals were saved from a sinking boat in the St. Regis River, which runs through Akwesasne Mohawk territory.

Akwesasne police said on Friday that the first of the eight bodies was located around 5 p.m. Thursday in a marsh area. They said the area was searched by a police marine unit with the help of the Canadian Coast Guard and the Hogansburg Akwesasne Volunteer Fire Department. Air-support units with the Quebec provincial police and Ontario Provincial Police were expected to assist with the investigation.

In a statement, the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne said it was grieving the loss of the migrants.

“Our hearts are with the families of these victims as we try to work through our own grief for precious lives lost in our territory.”

With a report from The Canadian Press

Andrew Coyne: Close the Roxham Road ‘loophole’ in the Safe Third Country Agreement? The whole agreement is one big loophole

Follow Eric Andrew-Gee on Twitter: @ericandrewgeeOpens in a new window
Follow Frédérik-Xavier Duhamel on Twitter: @FxDuhamelOpens in a new window

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