Canada plans for justice ahead of grim anniversary of war in Ukraine
Nearly one year ago, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau walked up to a podium in Ottawa, flanked by three of his top ministers, and declared the world had changed overnight.
“This morning, Ukrainians woke up to the brutal, terrifying reality of war,” Trudeau said on Feb. 24, 2022, after missiles and airstrikes rained down on the country in the early morning as Russian tanks rolled toward the capital of Kyiv.
“Russian violence, aggression and violation of international law will not go unpunished,” he said, the vast room heavy with silence.
Since then, the invasion has destabilized families, economies and the world order. Nearly a year later, minds are turning toward rebuilding what has been lost and finally claiming a sense of justice.
“The horrors of the genocide and the war crimes that have happened, it’s not forgivable,” said Ihor Michalchyshyn, the executive director of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress, in an interview in Ottawa.
No one knows exactly how the war will end, or when, but Michalchyshyn said Russia must be held accountable.
“I think that would be a nightmare scenario, where the war ends, justice fails. But I don’t think it will,” he said.
Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly made a show of solidarity last week with a two-day visit to Ukraine ahead of the anniversary to talk about what that accountability will look like.
She spoke to Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy about “addressing the issue of crimes against humanity, war crimes, the crime of aggression, and also sexual violence related crimes,” Joly said at a virtual press conference from Krakow, Poland on Thursday.
Ukraine’s general prosecutor Andriy Kostin told Joly the country has already identified 60,000 crimes linked to the war.
The International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court have already been tasked with investigating and prosecuting war crimes and crimes against humanity purported by Russian forces, but the crime of aggression falls outside of their respective mandates.
“We’ve joined the core group of countries that believe that there should be a special tribunal on the crime of aggression,” Joly said.
The United Kingdom is also part of that group of countries.
In the meantime, Ukrainians within and outside the country continue to live with the consequences of the war.
“Ever since it started, it seems to be like a nightmare,” said Halyna Dmytryshyn, sitting at the kitchen table in the small apartment she shares with her son and stepson in Ottawa.
For months after the invasion she stayed in her home community, just outside of Ivano-Frankivsk in western Ukraine. Finally, she decided conditions were getting worse for her child and she left.
“I want the war to be finished as soon as possible, but I know it’s just impossible … and the worst thing is that everybody is getting used to it, and the world as well.”
Even in Lviv, a relatively safe region in the west of Ukraine near the Polish border, air-raid sirens sound several times a day as a reminder of the constant danger faced by civilians. Many people pay the warnings no mind, no longer willing to run for cover in basements every time they go off.
Since the initial invasion, Ukraine pushed the Russian military out of the capital and forced the invaders to abandon territory in the northeast. The Ukrainians also regained some captured communities in the southeast of the country.
Still, the war took a heavy toll on the people of the country this winter as fierce fighting continued along the Russian border and Russia appeared to focus airstrikes on energy infrastructure, leaving Ukrainians without power or heat in the dead of winter.
Western allies, initially apprehensive about escalating the conflict by offering Ukraine weapons that could incite Russian President Vladimir Putin, have sent increasingly advanced and lethal weaponry to aid Ukraine in its defence.
In a recent bid to head off a spring offensive, Canada joined other allied countries in donating modern battle tanks to Ukraine’s arsenal.
“The boundaries on what counts as a weapon that can be provided to Ukraine has steadily changed,” said Roland Paris, international affairs professor at the University of Ottawa and Trudeau’s former senior foreign policy adviser.
In the last year, Canada has dedicated more than $5 billion to supporting Ukraine, including more than over $1.2 billion in military assistance.
While no one can be sure how the conflict will end, Paris said the most convincing assessments suggest it will continue for a long time.
He said it could become a “frozen conflict, where you have ongoing hostilities at varying different levels of intensity with maybe periods of lulls and even ceasefires.”
That’s a possibility that weighs on Michalchyshyn’s mind, but he said his fear about that scenario is muted by talk of international justice, criminal tribunals, and accountability.
“That’s what kind of gets us through,” he said.
No matter what comes of those trials, Dmytryshyn said in some ways, the nightmare Ukrainians have shared will never truly be over.
“I always pray for the finishing of war, but it’s not an issue because it will never leave us,” she said.
“We’ve changed. We changed a lot and nobody will be the same.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 19, 2023.
Two families found dead trying to enter US from Canada: Police – Al Jazeera English
Authorities have launched an investigation following the discovery of eight bodies in a marshy area of the St Lawrence River in Quebec near Canada’s border with the United States.
The Akwesasne Mohawk Police Service said six bodies were found about 5pm (21:00 GMT) on Thursday in the marsh in Tsi Snaihne, Akwesasne. Two more were discovered on Friday.
At a news conference on Friday, deputy police chief Lee-Ann O’Brien said the dead belonged to two families — one of Romanian descent with Canadian passports, the other Indian. One child under the age of three was among the fatalities, she said.
“All are believed to have been attempting illegal entry into the US from Canada,” O’Brien said at the press conference.
Later that day, the chief of the Akwesasne Mohawk Police Service, Shawn Dulude, said that one of the two additional bodies recovered was that of an infant from the Romanian family.
The deaths came one week after the United States and Canada announced the expansion of a border agreement granting them the authority to expel asylum seekers who cross the nations’ shared border at unofficial points of entry.
O’Brien said the bodies were found near a capsized boat belonging to a missing man from the Akwesasne Mohawk community, which stretches along both sides of the St Lawrence River, with land in Ontario and Quebec on the Canadian side, and in New York state.
Authorities were awaiting the results of post-mortem and toxicology tests to determine the cause of death.
Marco Mendicino, Canada’s minister of public safety, said the Canadian Coast Guard and the Quebec provincial police force were assisting Akwesasne police in their investigation.
“The news coming out of Akwesasne is heartbreaking,” the minister wrote on Twitter. “I’ve reached out to Grand Chief Abram Benedict to express our condolences. As we await more details, my thoughts are with the loved ones of those lost.”
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also expressed his condolences to the families. “This is a heartbreaking situation, particularly given the young child that was among them,” he told reporters.
“We need to understand properly what happened, how this happened and do whatever we can to ensure that we’re minimising the chances of it happening again.”
Last month, the Akwesasne Mohawk Police Service and the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribal Police reported a recent increase in undocumented entries through their lands and waterways. The statement said some people required hospitalisation.
In January, the police force noted that people involved in human smuggling had attempted to use shorelines along the Saint Lawrence River in the area.
‘Put human lives at risk’
Trudeau unveiled the expanded border deal, known as the Safe Third Country Agreement (STCA), last week during US President Joe Biden’s first official visit to Canada since taking office.
Since 2004, the STCA has forced asylum seekers to make claims for protection in the first country they arrive in — either the US or Canada, but not both.
That has meant that people already in the US could not make an asylum claim at an official port of entry into Canada, or vice versa, and allowed border authorities to uniformly turn people back at official land crossings.
The expanded agreement unveiled on March 24 closed a loophole in the STCA that previously allowed asylum seekers who crossed into Canada at unofficial points along the border to have their protection claims assessed once they were on Canadian soil.
The White House said last week that the restrictions would now also be applied “to migrants who cross between the ports of entry”.
Advocates slammed the move, saying applying the STCA to the entire 6,416km (3,987-mile) land border between the US and Canada would not prevent people from seeking to cross, but would only force them to take more dangerous routes.
The news coming out of Akwesasne is heartbreaking.
I’ve reached out to Grand Chief Abram Benedict to express our condolences.
As we await more details, my thoughts are with the loved ones of those lost.
— Marco Mendicino (@marcomendicino) March 31, 2023
Migrant justice advocates laid the blame for the most recent deaths on policymakers.
“The Safe Third Country Agreement (STCA) and other immigration laws are meant to deter migration from the global south by making border crossing deadly,” Nazila Bettache, a member of the Caring for Social Justice Collective, said in a statement on Friday.
“Let’s be clear, these deaths were predictable and predicted — and in that sense they are intentional.”
Samira Jasmin, spokesperson for the Solidarity Across Borders advocacy group, added that “these immigration policies put human lives at risk! We cross borders for a better world and instead face death”.
Local authorities disputed the idea that the closure played a role in the most recent deaths.
“Right now what I can tell you is this has nothing to do with that closure,” O’Brien said. “These people were believed to be gaining entry into the US. It’s completely opposite.”
The STCA applies in both directions, however, and US Border Patrol processed 3,577 people who crossed into the US irregularly from Canada last year, CBS News recently reported, citing government data.
Earlier this year, a family of four from India — including two children — were found frozen to death in the central Canadian province of Manitoba near the border with the US.
Authorities said they had attempted to cross over the border by foot on January 19 during severe winter weather and died from exposure.
A Haitian asylum seeker who came to Quebec via a popular, informal border crossing known as Roxham Road was also found dead at the frontier in late 2022 after attempting to go back to the US to rejoin his family.
Terrible – and just days after the US/Canada deal.
Again and again, we see punitive + deterrence-based asylum policies have horrifying and tragic consequences.
Consequences borne by migrants fleeing persecution. Consequences that are getting harder to describe as unintentional. https://t.co/mouezQ6cRF
— Danilo Zak (@DaniloZak) March 31, 2023
Police recover 2 more bodies from St. Lawrence River near Ontario-Quebec border – CBC.ca
Eight people are dead after they tried on Thursday to cross the St. Lawrence River into the United States near Akwesasne — a community which straddles Quebec, Ontario and New York state — according to officials. One other person is still missing.
Police recovered two more bodies from the river Friday, after discovering six bodies and an overturned boat during a missing person search Thursday afternoon.
The bodies are those of six adults and two children: one under the age of three who had a Canadian passport, the other an infant who was also a Canadian citizen, according to Shawn Dulude, the police chief for the nearby Kanien’kehá:ka community of Akwesasne. Dulude spoke to reporters at a Friday news conference.
They were found in a marsh on the riverbank.
They are believed to have been an Indian family and a Romanian family who were attempting to cross into the U.S., according to police.
Casey Oakes, 30, an Akwesasne resident, remains missing, police said. Oakes was last seen on Wednesday around 9:30 p.m. ET boarding a small, light blue vessel, leaving Cornwall Island. He was dressed in black, wearing a black face mask and a black tuque.
He was later reported missing, leading to the search efforts that found the bodies. Oakes is a person of interest in the case, said Dulude.
Police located Oakes’s vessel near the bodies, Lee-Ann O’Brien, the deputy chief of police for the Akwesasne Mohawk police service, said on Friday morning. Akwesasne is about 120 kilometres west of Montreal.
The IDs of the victims have not yet been released, pending notification of their next of kin.
A storm brought high winds and sleet into the area on Wednesday night. “It was not a good time to be out on the water,” O’Brien said.
“It could have been anything that caused this tragedy,” he said. “It could have been a faulty boat, it could have been human error and that the investigation will determine.”
Kevin Sturge Lazore, captain of the Akwasasne Fire Department’s Station 3, sent 15 volunteer firefighters to search the river on Thursday after Oakes’s family reported him missing. Another dozen or so volunteers from other stations in the community joined the effort.
The firefighters recovered the boat, its hull dented on the bottom as if it had hit ice or a rock, Lazore said.
He and O’Brien said the boat was small, and wouldn’t have been able to safely carry seven or eight people.
“What that boat could handle and the amount of people in it, it doesn’t make a pretty picture,” Lazore said, standing by the fire department dock on the water.
Friday morning, the water was calm and mirror-like. “It can change in the blink of an eye,” Lazore said, noting waves were more than a metre high Wednesday night.
“The river is always the major concern…. Our elders tell us, always be careful, especially in the spring, with the runoff, the current is stronger and the water is freezing.”
Other attempted crossings
The volunteer firefighters were only searching for one person when they discovered the first six bodies.
“It’s hitting them now,” Lazore said, adding they had begun a debrief Thursday evening to process what they had seen, but were interrupted by a call for a structure fire.
Thursday wasn’t the first time Lazore’s team has been called on to search for missing people who have tried to cross the border.
He said they rescue people attempting to enter the U.S. or Canada over the river and its tributaries about three or four times a year.
“It gets hard. It wears the guys down.”
Almost exactly a year ago, they rescued a group of six Indian nationals who had just made it into the United States on the river when the boat they were in hit a shallow bank and got stuck.
They were able to stand up in the boat and were rescued by the volunteers and Akwasasne Police Department — which received $6.5 million from the Quebec government last year to help it deal with the increased flow of human smuggling in the area.
“They were lucky. It could have been a lot worse,” Lazore said.
The fire station is next to a recreation centre where community members gathered Friday afternoon. They sit across a road from the Tsi’Snaihne River.
A police helicopter circled above.
Next to the fire station, a group of men lit a sacred fire early that morning and kept it going throughout the day. Lazore said the fire was to honour the families and Oakes.
Smuggling on the rise
O’Brien, the deputy police chief, said the community has seen an uptick in human smuggling into the U.S. There have been 48 incidents so far this year, she said.
But the recent deaths had nothing to do with the closure of the Roxham Road illegal border crossing, she added.
“That closure was people seeking refuge, leaving the U.S. to Canada. These people were believed to be gaining entry into the U.S. It’s completely the opposite.”
Most of those who try to enter the U.S. through the area are Indian and Romanian families, she said, but she said she “had no idea” why that was the case.
Ryan Brissette, a public affairs officer with U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, says the agency had seen a “massive uptick in encounters and apprehensions” at the border.
The agency saw more than eight times as many people try to cross from Canada into the U.S. in 2022 compared to previous years, he said. Many of them — more than 64,000 — came through Quebec or Ontario into New York.
“Comparing this area in the past, this is a significant number,” Brissette said.
“There’s a lot of different reasons as to why this is happening, why folks are coming all of a sudden through the northern border. I think a lot of them think it’s easier, an easy opportunity and they just don’t know the danger that it poses, especially in the winter months.”
Eight bodies found in St Lawrence River near US-Canada border – BBC
Authorities say they have recovered the bodies of eight migrants, including two children, who died trying to cross illegally from Canada into the US.
A police helicopter spotted two more bodies in the St Lawrence River on Friday. Two families from Romania and India are among the dead.
It is unclear if there is any link between Mr Oakes and the families.
Police said the first body was found around 17:00 local time (21:00 GMT) in a marsh in Tsi Snaihne in Akwesasne, a Mohawk territory right between the US-Canada border.
The other bodies were discovered nearby. Their identities have not yet been released by police.
The dead were six adults and two children.
One child was under the age of three and had a Canadian passport. The other infant was also a Canadian citizen, a local police chief told reporters at a Friday news conference.
The bodies are believed to be from two families, one of Romanian descent and one of Indian descent, Lee-Ann O’Brien, deputy chief of Akwesasne Mohawk Police Service, told reporters.
“All are believed to have been attempting illegal entry into the US from Canada,” Ms O’Brien said. She added that weather conditions were rough in the area on Wednesday night.
The bodies were found in the Quebec area of Akwesasne, a Mohawk community whose territory includes parts of Ontario, Quebec and New York State. It is located about 120km west of Montreal.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said: “This is a heartbreaking situation.
“We need to understand properly what happened, how it happened and do whatever we can to minimize the chances of this ever happening again.”
Bodies of people attempting to cross into the US from Canada have been discovered at other locations in recent months.
In January, police in Canada found the bodies of four people, including an infant, in a snow field near Emerson, Manitoba, by the US-Canada border. The dead are believed to be a family from India, US officials said.
A Montreal man was also found dead near the US-Canada border in December. Fritznel Richard, 44, was trying to cross into the US to reunite with his wife and child.
US border agents have noted an uptick of people crossing back from Canada.
In January, US Border Patrol apprehended 367 people attempting to cross north to south – more than the number of such crossings in the last 12 years combined.
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