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Mohawk tribal chief: protest without closing bridge

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MASSENA — Mohawk tribal leaders are now urging members not to engage in protests that block the Seaway International Bridge.

They stated their position in a news release issued a month after a peaceful march closing the bridge between Massena and Cornwall, Ontario, drew criticism for halting traffic.

Town of Massena Supervisor Joseph D. Gray has called the bridge-closing protests “pointless,” coming under criticism himself for his reaction to the tribe’s protest of Canadian policies.

And now some tribal official are questioning demonstrations that impact travel across the border.

St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Chief Ron LaFrance said he would prefer demonstrators in the Idle No More movement pursue methods of protest that do not affect travelers.

He said while he supports the movement and the Jan. 5 march, “I believe there are other ways of holding a demonstration that do not include blocking the bridge.”

The three Mohawk governing bodies issued a joint statement last week regarding the “Day of Action,” which took place Monday in cities across the United States and Canada. While no demonstrations took place that day on the Mohawk reservation, some supporters of the Idle No More movement traveled to Ottawa, where hundreds gathered in a demonstration on Parliament Hill.

Tribal officials also asked demonstrators to exercise caution and foresight if they planned to block routes of transportation.

“The Mohawk Council of Akwesasne, Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe and Mohawk Nation Council of Chiefs do not — at this time — endorse any local rally or activity that could result in the closure of the Three Nations Bridge Crossing. While the leadership does support the Idle No More movement, activities which could result in a bridge closure must be planned well enough in advance for community members to make necessary arrangements,” according to the statement.

Several days after the Jan. 5 march, Mr. Gray posted a blog charging the bridge closure was detrimental to the local economy. Mr. Gray has since apologized for the blog, saying he made some statements he wished he hadn’t.

“Protests are an acceptable, meaningful way to get a point across, but I would hope we can find another way for protests to be as visible without closing the bridge,” Mr. Gray said Jan. 10. “I think that message was lost in my original blog, and there were some words (in it) I shouldn’t have used.”

Village of Massena Mayor James F. Hidy, who held a news conference to show his support for Mr. Gray’s position, applauded the tri-council statement, saying it helps promote unity between the Massena and Mohawk communities.

“I’m encouraged to see that tribal council officials can see other point of views in regards to demonstration,” Mr. Hidy said. “It demonstrates how our two communities can work together to strive for a more effective region, economically and (in regards to) tourism.”

Idle No More is a response to a Canadian federal budget bill that reduces some environmental protections and would allow private developers to buy tribal land.

Many tribal leaders say the bill violates their treaty rights.

According to tribe member Curtis H. White, the bill is just the latest in a long-running history of legislation meant to reduce the rights of Indian tribes in Canada and the United States. The Idle No More protests are a way of speaking out against these decisions. Mr. LaFrance noted the march was a grass-roots effort and the tribal council was not involved in organizing or staging the march.

Also in the weeks since Mr. Gray published his controversial blog, one of Idle No More’s co-founders, Sylvia McAdam, has decried protests that block international routes of transportation, calling them “not peaceful” and saying they “portray a message of aggressiveness,” according to CBC News in Canada.

However, Charles “Chaz” Kader, clerk of the Men’s Council of the People of the Way of the Longhouse, believes Ms. McAdam’s statements were broad in scope and may not necessarily have applied to the Akwesasne people, who are in a unique position in regard to the border.

“Different actions were taken at different (Idle No More) protests. (The march) was really to me an expression of the people of Akwesasne,” Mr. Kader said. “Akwesasne politics will always be influenced by the border that runs through our land.”

Mr. Kader was also surprised by the joint press release by the Mohawk councils, noting tribal officials do not play a role in planning or organizing Idle No More activities. He believes most in the Akwesasne community, including tribal government officials, support demonstrations that close the bridge, but only when it’s in response to an issue of vital importance to the reservation’s residents.

“I think the people here have the right to do whatever has to be done. And clearly the bridge is on Akwesasne land,” Mr. Kader said. “No one I’ve spoken to is against closing the bridge for necessary reasons.”

Mr. Kader expects some in the community may call for future bridge-closing demonstrations to speak out against the possible relocation of a Canadian customs checkpoint to the American side of the bridge.

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