Child missing after migrant bodies found near Canada border

The victims were trying to enter the United States illegally from Canada, said Lee-Ann O’Brien, deputy chief of the Akwesasne Mohawk Police Service

Searchers look for victims in Akwesasne, Quebec, March 31, 2023.
Searchers look for victims in Akwesasne, Quebec, March 31, 2023.Ryan Remiorz (AP)

Authorities in the Mohawk Territory of Akwesasne said Friday one child is missing after the bodies of six migrants of Indian and Romanian descent were pulled from a river that straddles the Canada-U.S. border. The victims were trying to enter the United States illegally from Canada, said Lee-Ann O’Brien, deputy chief of the Akwesasne Mohawk Police Service. Their bodies, including that of a child under 3, were found Thursday in the St. Lawrence River near Akwesasne, Quebec.

O’Brien says police found a Canadian passport belonging to a missing infant with the Romanian family, adding that the deceased child was also a Canadian citizen.

Weather conditions in the area were rough Wednesday night, she said.

The territory is known for being a transit point for the trafficking of humans and contraband because of its location. And in February, police in Akwesasne reported an increase in human smuggling into the Mohawk territory.

O’Brien said the six bodies were located during a search for a 30-year-old man who was reported missing on Thursday. Casey Oakes of Akwesasne was last seen Wednesday around 9:30 p.m. boarding a small boat departing from the east end of Cornwall Island, located in the St. Lawrence River and on the Ontario side of the Mohawk territory.

“A vessel matching the description as being operated by Casey Oakes was located in the vicinity of the deceased persons,” she said, adding that she couldn’t confirm whether that boat had been used to transport the two families.

O’Brien said police are looking for any information about the whereabouts of Oakes, adding that she wasn’t aware the man had a criminal record. The 30-year-old, however, was charged last year with two criminal counts: dangerous operation of a conveyance and assault with a weapon.

“This is a heartbreaking situation, particularly given the young child that was among them,” Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said. “We need to understand properly what happened, how it happened and do whatever we can to minimize the chances of this ever happening again.”

The Akwesasne Mohawk Police Service said the first body was located around 5 p.m. in a marsh. The area was searched further 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 are expected to assist with the investigation of the area.

Post-mortem and toxicology tests have been ordered to determine the cause of the deaths.

Akwesasne police say there have been 48 incidents of people trying to cross illegally into Canada or into the United States through the Mohawk territory since January, and most of them have been of Indian or Romanian descent.

Akwesasne straddles the Canada-United States border, and has territory in Quebec, Ontario and New York state.

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.

Trudeau and U.S. President Joe Biden announced a plan last week to close a loophole to an immigration agreement that allowed thousands of asylum-seeking migrants to move between the two countries along a back road linking New York state to Quebec.

The deal closing an illegal border crossing point about 105 kilometers (66 miles) east of Akwesasne took effect Saturday. O’Brien said it has nothing to do with the closure of the Roxham Road illegal crossing into Canada.

Early last year, a Florida man was charged with human smuggling after the bodies of four people, including a baby and a teen, were found in Canada near the U.S. border in what authorities believe was a failed crossing attempt during a freezing blizzard between Manitoba, Canada and North North Dakota. The dead were Indian nationals trying to enter the U.S.

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