Following deaths of 8 near Akwesasne, Trudeau says orderly immigration system is needed

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is reiterating the importance of an orderly immigration system as police investigate the deaths of eight people, including two children, near the Mohawk Territory of Akwesasne last week.

Bodies of people were pulled from St. Lawrence River after they attempted boat crossing to U.S.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau responds to a question from the opposition during Question Period, Tuesday, March 21, 2023 in Ottawa.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau responds to a question in the House of Commons last month in Ottawa. Trudeau said Monday that Canada is prepared to welcome more immigrants than ever, but that the government would 'make sure that it's done in the right ways, appropriately.' (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is reiterating the importance of an orderly immigration system as police investigate the deaths of eight people, including two children, near the Mohawk Territory of Akwesasne last week.

Last month, Canada negotiated a deal with the United States to turn away asylum seekers at unofficial border crossings like Roxham Road, closing a long-standing loophole in the Safe Third Country Agreement.

Immigration advocates have warned the new rules would push people to take even greater risks in their efforts to cross the border, such as using smugglers and moving to even more remote locations.

A sign says Road Closed. Other official signs in the background say Stop and Notice.
The irregular border crossing at Roxham Road from New York into Quebec is seen Friday March 24, in Champlain, N.Y. The crossing was closed last month after Canada and the U.S. reached an agreement to update the Safe Third Country Agreement. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

A week later, the bodies of eight people were pulled from the St. Lawrence River; police said they believe they were attempting to make it into the U.S. from Canada by boat.

The prime minister called the deaths a tragedy, but said Canada needs to maintain public confidence in the immigration system.

"When people take risks to cross our borders in an irregular fashion or if they pay criminals to get them across the border, this isn't a system we can have confidence in," Trudeau said in French at a Monday press conference in Val-d'Or, Que.

Canada is prepared to welcome more immigrants than ever, he said, "but we're going to make sure that it's done in the right ways, appropriately."

A police boat near a marsh in early spring.
Police search marshland on March 31, near where bodies were found in Akwesasne, a Mohawk community west of Montreal on the Ontario, Quebec and New York borders. Eight people, including two children, died while attempting to cross the St. Lawrence River to get to the U.S. from Canada. (Christinne Muschi/Reuters)

The government's immigration plan says between 410,000 and 505,000 people will become permanent residents this year, which would be the highest number in recent history.

But since COVID-19 border restrictions lifted in 2021, the number of asylum claims has significantly surpassed pre-pandemic levels. Cities and provinces, particularly Quebec, have said the number of families claiming asylum have put pressure on local services.

Despite the recent clampdown at the border, the federal government set aside $1 billion for temporary shelter and health-care coverage for asylum seekers.

Critics want agreement with U.S. suspended

NDP immigration critic Jenny Kwan called on the government to suspend the Safe Third Country Agreement Monday, saying it was negotiated in secret and without consultation.

"I do fear that people will die," said Kwan at a press conference at the irregular border crossing near Emerson, Man.

She was joined by Seidu Mohammed, a bisexual man from Ghana, whose asylum claim was rejected in America. He spent a year in immigration detention before he crossed into Canada through an irregular border crossing.

Razak Iyal, left, and Seidu Mohammed pose together for a photo. Mohammed is holding his certificate of Canadian citizenship, while they're both draped with Canadian flags behind their back.
Razak Iyal, left, and Seidu Mohammed are draped in Canadian flags after they officially became citizens earlier this month. The two friends almost lost their lives as they walked across the U.S. border in the freezing cold to get to Canada, back in 2016. (Ian Froese/CBC)

If he didn't, he fears he would have been deported to Ghana where sexual acts between consenting people of the same gender is against the law and people who identify as LGBTQ face discrimination and violence.

Mohammed said he was terrified when he heard about the new policy.

"It's going to put a lot of immigrants and refugees in danger, and they're going to lose their lives from this," he said.

Immigration minister considering policy changes

Immigration Minister Sean Fraser called the eight deaths in Akwesasne horrific, and said they have caused him to think about changes.

"I don't have an announcement on a policy change today, but I can reassure you that I'm thinking very deeply about what shifts we ought to be making in Canada," he said, reflecting specifically on the fact that the two children who died had Canadian passports.

The children were one and two years old.

WATCH | Immigration minister on possible policy changes: 

Minister says he's thinking about policy changes ‘to better protect the ability for Canadian children to be raised here.’

6 months ago
Duration 2:46
Reporters ask Immigration Minister Sean Fraser whether the parents of children with Canadian passports should be allowed to stay in the country. This comes days after eight people died trying to cross the St. Lawrence River. Police said that when one of the men was recovered, he was holding the Canadian passports of his two children.

Fraser said the government is looking at putting money toward some of the root causes that push people to make perilous journeys through irregular border crossings in the first place, but repeated the prime minister's message about the importance of an orderly system.

"We want to do what we can to promote opportunities for people to come through regular pathways so they know that they're going to be able to arrive in Canada safely, whether that's through our refugee programs, whether that's through our economic programs to be reunited with their families," Fraser said at a press conference in Calgary.


Laura Osman


Laura Osman is a reporter for The Canadian Press.