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Why the Mohawks are no longer walking the high 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

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.

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.

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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

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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.

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Big Apple's 'Little Kahnawake'

Michael Delisle's father may have been clairvoyant. Now grand chief of the Kahnawake Mohawk Council, Mr. Delisle was once an ironworker even though his father tried to stop him from following in his footsteps. "He pushed education, he wanted me to work smart."

Mr. Delisle not only worked in New York, he lived there for a few years. Until the I-87 reached the Canadian border in 1963, the commute was so difficult that many workers made the move permanent, forming micro Mohawk communities. The most famous was "Little Kahnawake," a stretch of State Street in Brooklyn that Mr. Delisle says "was full … all Kahnawake."

But in the early 1980s, it began to dissolve as work slowed and rents climbed (from a monthly average of $335 in the 1970s to almost 10 times that in the 1990s).

Now, even with their healthy salary, most cannot afford to live alone here, let alone support a family. Mr. Marquis and two roommates share a small place, and get by with the help of care packages from home (Mohawk care packages, that is: smoked fish, moose meat and venison).

Since Little Kahnawake disappeared, only three Mohawks remain on State Street, including Calvin Kirby, who is 55 and feels that the Mohawk presence "is coming to an end, maybe 10 years or so," but hedges his bet: "I could be wrong."

It usually takes Mr. Marquis seven to eight hours to reach the city. If early enough, he can park right by the construction site, where he is helping to build a new complex for Columbia University.

After grabbing a coffee, he spends the next eight hours hooking crane cables to the building's skeletal iron beams. By 5 o'clock, after more than 17 sleepless hours, he goes home and straight to bed.

He and Joe McComber are among 80 native members of the Ironworkers Local 40 in Brooklyn, according to Bob Walsh, the union's business manager. A few more may belong to other locals in the area.

Local 40 operates an apprentice training school whose three-year certification program teaches all the skills, from welding to crane operating, the trade demands.

Every two years, 60 to 130 new students are accepted, and applications have been skyrocketing. In 2008, there were 2,500, which, by last spring, had almost doubled. Bryan Brady, director of training, says applicants range from former letter carriers to people with doctorates. "I think the economy over all is not good, and we're one of the few jobs left that offer health and pension benefits," he explains.

In the process, the Mohawks say, Kahnawake hopefuls are being shut out (Mr. Brady says he can't refute claims there are none in the most recent class).

After work at Kelly's, a favourite tavern, Mr. Marquis and some old buddies vent on the subject, arguing that the entrance test now favours formal education over the more vocational Mohawk upbringing.

Randy Jacobs was 16 at the school and breezed into the industry. Today, at 40, he has four former stock traders working with him on the One World Trade Center site. "I wouldn't say it's discrimination – it's bullshit," he gripes.

"I think they want astronaut's equivalence," quips Adam Cross, at 31, one of the younger Mohawk workers. He's not far off. Designed to identify the smartest and strongest, the admissions test is almost fit for the space program. Applicants first take a general aptitude test, run by an outside company, and only the top 400 scores move on. They then take a physical test, which requires them to scale a 30-foot iron beam and lift 25-pound weights to an elevated platform as rapidly as they can. In the end, half are accepted.

Presented with the Mohawks' concerns, Mr. Brady shrugs his shoulders. The test "is not just for [sons of] ironworkers – it's got to be fair," he says. "When you have 4,800 people and they only take 200, the other 4,600 are going to complain."

Older Mohawks needed no such training. Mr. Marquis borrowed $300 from his father, bought a licence from the Montreal union, started work the same week, and paid off the debt with his first cheque.

Now, he has a co-worker he says is less than impressive despite having a PhD: "You can't take a chicken swimming – that's kind of what we've got going on."

A new (and easier) source of income

New York's steep rents are a challenge, but until the financial crisis of 2008 a steady diet of high-paying construction work made it surmountable. Local 40's Mr. Walsh says the collapse caused banks to shy away from the low-interest loans they had been giving contractors.

But the ailing economy may not be the biggest threat to the ironworker tradition. Prof. Alfred says that heading south is losing its attraction in Kahnawake, which has a population of 8,000 and is about 15 minutes from downtown Montreal.

He grew up with James Marquis, Pete's younger brother. Both joined the U.S. Marines, and when Mr. Marquis retired in 1991 after the first Gulf War, he couldn't find a steady job in Kahnawake for eight years, so he went into ironworking. However, his youngest brother, Cory, chose a different path – he's "in cigarettes."

"Now, everything you need, you can have it in Kahnawake," Mr. Marquis says. "They don't have to do what we have to do – I don't have to do what I do."

A 2005 survey conducted by Tewatohnhi'saktha, the Kahnawake Economic Development Commission, found that since 2000 household income generated right on the reserve had increased by no less than 50 per cent, and now represents three-quarters of all income. Meanwhile, income earned south of the border – mostly through ironwork – has fallen by half, to 12 per cent of household income.

Cruising up the I-87, Mr. Marquis shakes his head. He used to squeeze four co-workers into his back seat for the drive back to Kahnawake. About 15 years ago, they went into the cigarette business instead. "Guys could make a faster living," he says. "Some people make thousands, some made hundreds of thousands, some made millions. Some are still making millions."

The industry started in the early 1970s, gaining traction because retailers on the reserve were exempt from Quebec taxes, says John Bud Morris, chief executive officer of Tewatohnhi'saktha. Now, residents do everything from manufacturing to packaging, distribution and retailing.

Mr. Marquis says a long stretch of road on the outskirts of the reserve, forest when he was younger, is now known as "Las Vegas" for the rows of luminescent tobacco stores and gambling houses. People set up small cigarette stands outside their houses, almost like lemonade stands. One tobacco trader lives in a towering, neo-Romanesque mansion, and last Halloween reportedly gave trick-or-treaters $20 bills instead of candy.

"Many factors affect Kahnawake's participation in the ironwork trade," Mr. Morris says. "Arguably, the limited opportunities … has been the biggest contributor."

Although the migration is dwindling, few are willing to predict a complete demise. "We've been able to adapt over 100 years," Mr. Delisle says. "I think there's always going to be Mohawks working construction in New York City."

But Prof. Alfred warns that the tradition depends on teamwork. "There's a culture there and, like any culture, if not enough people practise it and if it's not transferred generationally, it'll die out."

Mr. Marquis is to retire in a few years, and says he will miss New York. But will the city miss the Mohawks? Prof. Alfred is skeptical: "New York being New York, it'll probably be forgotten in a minute."

'We used to make men'

At 3 a.m., we reach the border and before long the car rumbles over railway tracks and Mr. Marquis announces that we have entered Kahnawake. He slows down, pointing out the cigarette stands, casinos and advertising that did not exist a few years ago. "We used to make men here," he says. "Now, we make women."

He pulls up to a house, and Cam drags himself through the front door. The night before, his grandfather had asked, "How would you feel about living like this?"

Cam belongs to a wireless world where the road to New York seems long and fruitless. He didn't answer.

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