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Akwesasne: Bodies of two more migrants found, bring total dead to eight

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Police say the bodies of eight migrants have been retrieved from the waters off the Mohawk Territory of Akwesasne, straddling the Canada - U.S. border.

The bodies, recovered Thursday and Friday, consisted of two families of Romanian and Indian origins who were likely trying to enter the U.S. illegally, police said Friday. Two children are among the dead.

On Friday morning, Akwesasne Mohawk Police said six bodies were found in a marsh area during an aerial search with the Canadian Coast Guard. One of them was a young child, who was found with a Canadian passport, police told CTV News Thursday. The child was a member of the Romanian family.

Officials provided a second update to the media Friday afternoon, saying the two additional bodies have been recovered. One is an infant, who was a Canadian citizen of Romanian descent. The second was a woman who was an Indian national.

The bodies, which haven't been officially identified, were found in Tsi Snaihne (Snye) in Akwesasne, a Mohawk territory that straddles Quebec, Ontario and New York state.

"All are believed to have been attempting illegal entry into the U.S. from Canada," said Akwesasne deputy police chief Lee-Ann O'Brien.

They were discovered as the result of a search for another missing person that also started Thursday. 

Casey Oakes, 30, was last seen Wednesday boarding a small, light blue vessel departing from the east end of Cornwall Island, in the St. Lawrence. Oakes remains missing and police say they are continuing to search the waterways for him.

The vessel Oakes was using was later found near the bodies of the six deceased. Akwesasne police could not confirm whether Oakes has any connection to the victims. 

Shawn Dulude, chief of the Akwesasne Mohawk Police Service would not speculate on what caused the deaths, and said a coroner will determine the cause of death.

"It could be anything that could have caused this tragedy. It could be a faulty boat, it could be human error, and the investigation will determine that," he said.

NO CONNECTION TO ROXHAM ROAD CLOSURE, POLICE SAY

According to O'Brien, investigators do not believe the tragedy is connected to the closure of Roxham Road last week.

Roxham Road, an unofficial point of entry between New York and Quebec, was closed Saturday morning following an agreement between U.S. President Joe Biden and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

"This has nothing to do with that closure. That closure was people [...] leaving the U.S. to Canada, these people were believed to be gaining entry into the U.S," O'Brien said.

While it's true that Roxham was mainly used by those seeking passage to Canada, some used it to enter the U.S. as well. One example is Fritznel Richard from Montreal, who died near the border in December while attempting to reach his family in New York.

RISK OF HUMAN SMUGGLING ON TERRITORY

But illegal border crossings through Akwesasne were an issue before Roxham closed; in January, for example, Akwesasne police say they detained four "foreign nationals" attempting to enter the U.S. illegally.

"We have seen an increase of people passing through Akwesasne gaining entry into the U.S.," O'Brien said.

Before that, in April 2022, six Indian nationals were rescued from a sinking boat in the St. Regis River, which runs through Akwesasne Mohawk Territory.

A seventh person, spotted leaving the vessel and wading ashore, was later identified as a U.S. citizen. U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials described what happened as a human smuggling incident.

Dulude said his team has patrolled the water on the territory for many years, and received additional funding in the last year with a goal of surveilling the area 24 / 7.

"Since January, we have had 80 interceptions of people that were trying to gain access to the United States coming through our territory," Dulude said. "There's always been people coming through here. Obviously now lately, there's been more attention brought to it because of other situations across the province and across the country with illegal migrants trying to gain access to the United States."

Akwesasne can be a target for human traffickers because of its location, said Dulude.

"It's money, quick money, but there is a risk that comes with it. And this unfortunately shows at a larger scale, the risk that is involved with it," he said. "Because of where we're located, they can facilitate and go find people within our community that are, to a certain extent, exploited because of their knowledge of the waters and the lay of the land, that they will get these people into United States."

Speaking to reporters in Moncton, N.B. Friday, Trudeau said he doesn't want to speculate on whether the deaths were related to Roxham's closure.

"We have to understand properly what happened and do whatever we can to minimize the chances of it happening again," he said. 

With files from CTV News Montreal's Joe Lofaro and The Canadian Press. 

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