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Police response questioned in Akwesasne

Ahkhwesahsró:non have been left questioning whether the Akwesasne Mohawk Police (AMP) could have done more to prevent the tragedy that claimed the lives of eight individuals in the St. Lawrence River last Thursday and Friday. 

Allegations have this week emerged that community members made contact with the police reporting sounds of screams in the river as early as 10 p.m. on Wednesday night.

Local lawyer Keith Gordon, who has lived in Akwesasne since 2013, has been in communication with a number of residents who made or attempted to make contact with the AMP on Wednesday night and into the early hours of Thursday morning. Gordon said that he has reason to believe a first call was made around 10 p.m. on Wednesday night by an undisclosed person or group. Gordon then said that a call was made after midnight by Ahkhwesahsró:non Danielle Oakes, who consented to her name being published in The Eastern Door but who declined to be interviewed. 

Gordon has been supporting residents in the area and has spoken to two individuals who stated that they contacted the police. No legal action has been taken.

“Danielle Oakes felt that she wasn’t being taken seriously,” said Gordon. “Between 12 a.m. and 12:30 a.m., Danielle Oakes made a call from her home phone. She reported hearing cries from the water for help.”

Gordon confirmed that he and Oakes are currently seeking a timestamp as confirmation of what time the call was made. 

“Two officers showed up relatively quickly. One stood by (her) house and the other went down by the dock, and the person that went by the dock couldn’t see or hear anything, so basically told Danielle Oakes to call if you hear anything else,” said Gordon.  

He noted that he and other community members have been particularly troubled by the AMP’s initial omission that calls for help had been made on Wednesday evening and Thursday morning, though they have now acknowledged two calls concerning potential screams coming from the river on Wednesday night, according to the Ottawa Citizen.

Gordon said he believes the AMP have now acknowledged three calls from Ahkhwesahsró:non, and that he believes he has spoken to two of the callers and knows of a third.

A spokesperson for the AMP was not available for comment by deadline.

“The police came, and according to Danielle, just minimised her. She felt belittled and they left,” Gordon recounted. “The next day, Danielle found out what had happened, and her initial response was that maybe they could have saved somebody if they listened to her.”

Gordon said that the AMP have stated that they used infrared night-vision to search the area, a claim corroborated by deputy police chief Lee-Ann O’Brien to the Ottawa Citizen.

“They said they used night-vision and attempted to follow up on what Danielle was saying, but Danielle would tell you she didn’t see them using anything, they just looked out,” he said. 

He noted that Oakes has had trouble coming to terms with the fact that her earlier call could have made a difference in the search for those missing. “She’s having trouble sleeping and trying to avoid everything. She feels horrible thinking, could she have prevented something?”

Gordon said that he spoke with another individual who contacted the AMP via text around 3 a.m.

“The person who sent the text message received a communication the next day that said ‘we don’t monitor 24/7 our text messages,’” explained Gordon. He said he had asked the individual why she had not contacted the police via telephone if she had thought there was an emergency. “She said to me that on five different occasions in the past she’s called, and only three times has AMPs ever bothered to show up. And whenever they do show up, they don’t show up right away, just hours later. She basically said they’re not dependable.”
According to Gordon, the AMP noted that a call reporting loud yelling is relatively common, and often is just inebriated teenagers. Gordon stressed that Oakes was upset by that framing. 

“She basically said she knows the sounds of kids making noise and kids playing. On that particular night, it was crappy weather. There’s just no way there were kids playing. This is what she means when she says she felt minimized,” he said. “Are you kidding? It was an ice storm. It was blustery. That’s part of what she’s angry about, how dare you come back and try to brush it off? It’s very insulting to her.”

Oakes was not called in by AMPs to give a statement until 72 hours after she first contacted them for help, according to Gordon, who also noted that there was an extreme delay in the deployment of fire services, who were not immediately called after the initial contact made with the AMP.

Eight bodies have been found in Akwesasne, including two children under three. An Ahkhwesahsró:non, Casey Oakes, who is not related to Danielle Oakes, is also understood to be missing, having last been seen on Wednesday night in a boat. 

AMP have announced that they believe Oakes is connected to the deaths. AMP announced on Thursday afternoon that they have suspended the search of local waterways unless they receive “actionable intelligence.”

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Eve is a reporter with the Eastern Door. She has also covered harm reduction and social justice issues for the Montreal Gazette, The Breach, Filter Magazine, and more.

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Eve is a reporter with the Eastern Door. She has also covered harm reduction and social justice issues for the Montreal Gazette, The Breach, Filter Magazine, and more.