Hundreds of Mohawks from both sides of the imposed Canada-United States border that slices through their aboriginal territory marched toward each other January 5 on an international bridge that links the state of New York with the Province of Ontario, drumming and singing in an Idle No More solidarity march.
The Mohawk march closed down the Seaway International Bridge over the St. Lawrence River between Massena, New York, and Cornwall, Ontario, for almost five hours. The International Bridge is actually two bridges: one goes from Massena, New York to Cornwall Island in the middle of the river and another from the island to the City of Cornwall, Ontario. Cornwall Island is part of the Mohawk Akwesasne community that straddles both sides of the St. Lawrence River and several islands in the river. The last time the bridge was closed was in the spring of 2009 when Mohawks objected to a Canadian plan to arm the Canadian customs officers at the border crossing which was then located on Cornwall Island. The bridge was closed for more than a month.
Saturday’s march was part of a series of planned Idle No More solidarity demonstrations that focused on border crossing across the country. Protests were scheduled to take place at the Peace Bridge between Fort Erie, Ontario, and Buffalo, New York, on the Deh Cho Bridge in the North West Territories, the Peach Arch border crossing in Surrey, British Columbia, the Canadian side of the Blue Water Bridge in Sarnia, Ontario, at the Queenston/Lewiston Bridge between Niagara Falls and Niagara on the Lake and other places, according to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/ottawa/story/2013/01/05/ottawa-cornwall-idle-no-more-protest-close-bridge-to-usa.html.
The Mohawk march across the International Bridge “was so powerful in such a peaceful way,” said Lorraine White, a citizen and former elected chief of the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe on the U.S. side of the border. “It was a beautiful day to be out there exhibiting our solidarity,” White said. “Akwesasne came out in full force. I think we were one of the larger exhibits of Native solidarity in support of Native Canada in particular – Native America, too, of course – but particularly with First Nations with respect to this C-45 bill.”
Bill C-45, passed by the Canadian legislature in early December, is an omnibus piece of legislation that violates First Nations treaties and leaves Indigenous Peoples with no power over their lands and resources. Four First Nations women – Sheelah McLean, Nina Wilson, Sylvia McAdam, and Jessica Gordon – launched the Idle No More movement to protest the bill and the movement has since blossomed into a peaceful grassroots social justice movement that aims to raise consciousness and understanding of indigenous sovereignty and the urgent need to protect the environmental. Attawapiskat First Nation Chief Theresa Spence began a hunger strike December 11 to force a meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper which is now scheduled to happen on January 11.
White said a group of several hundred Mohawks from the New York side of the river gathered at around 10:30 a.m. on January 5 and began the march across the bridge. “Our drummers moved to the front of the group and they just began singing. The sun was shining and it was beautiful. People were bundled up but despite the temperature everyone had proud smiles on their faces. It was a powerful day. Our hearts were gigantic,” White said.
All of the traffic in the area was shut down. When the marchers crested the top of the first bridge and began to descend to Cornwall Island they peered down and saw “another couple of hundred people – Mohawks, our brothers and sisters – coming to meet us in the center on Cornwall Island. They were drumming and singing too, then we all merged in the center of the island and continued to the next bridge,” White said.
The group of several hundred marchers continued north to the Canadian customs station in the City of Cornwall and marched through it without stopping. Marchers continued until they surrounded a large traffic circle where they performed a round dance. “Flags were stuck in the snow banks, We sang songs then we marched back over the bridge to Cornwall Island again all together,” White said people were elated.
She also dismissed criticism she had heard that people don’t know why they’re demonstrating. “I don’t give that criticism any credence,” she said. “When you’re looked into the faces of the six, seven, and eight year old young Mohawks that’s not what comes to mind. They knew why they were there. They were with other Mohawks, holding hands and singing out traditional songs and they knew this is about unity and about coming together for strength and solidarity. It was good for our community, for the overall effort to bring recognition to the movement.”
White and others have suggested that the Idle No More movement is a continuum of the Arab Spring that has overturned dictatorships in the Middle East over the past two years – a kind of Indigenous Winter. “This is an international movement that continues to grow,” White said. “We’re reminding the governments and the world that Native people are here. We’re not going to be legislated out of existence. We’re not going to be ignored. We’re going to gain strength from each other and we’re going to remind you of our power, our strengths.”
As for the future of the movement, White said that the elders may show the way. “I went with a group of elders for coffee after the march and they said, ‘Ok, what’s next?’ It wasn’t about patting ourselves on the back and going home, they’re thinking beyond what’s happening right now,” White said. The discussion among First Nations over C-45 has naturally evolved into a discussion about what is going on in New York state with the Cuomo administration, White said. “I think the Native community in the state is talking about how we should come together with respect to the tactics of this administration. People were talking about it before but now it’s about doing, it’s about keeping it going. There are issues we need to bring to their attention.”