Canada prevents Mohawks from returning home on Haudenosaunee passports
The Mohawk Delegation in Bolivia. Photo Courtesy Kanentokon Hemlock.
Greg Horn
When a delegation from Kahnawake travelled to Bolivia last month to take part in an environmental conference they had no idea that it would turn into an exercise in self-determination and a fight for Indigenous rights. For Kanen’tokon Hemlock, Tyler Hemlock and Kahnawiio Dione a ten-day trip to the South American country turned into 29 days – most of which were spent in San Salvador, El Salvador trying to get home.

The three Kahnawa’kehró:non travelled to Bolivia as the Mohawk Delegation for the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth. The Kahnawake Delegation was appointed by the Mohawk Nation at Kahnawake and travelled on the Haudenosaunee Passport. Prior to their trip, the delegation went to the Bolivian Embassy in Ottawa to get visas to be able travel to Bolivia on their passports.

It would appear that their troubles began almost as soon as they left on April 16. As they were preparing to leave the Pearson International Airport in Toronto, the representative from Taca Airlines did not know what to do with their passports because it was the first time this airline saw the Haudenosaunee Passport.

“Right from the get-go we had some issues [with the passport],” Hemlock said. “The issue being was that none of our people have really flew with Taca Airlines before. So when they seen the passport, they said, “What is this? We’ve never seen this before, we’re going to have to check this out.”

Hemlock said they were then brought downstairs to Canadian Customs to inquire about their passports.

“She hands it to the woman behind the glass and she says, ‘What are these?’” Hemlock recounted. “So the woman looks at it and she says, “Oh, they’re Indigenous, they can go where they want. Let them go. Let them on the plane. There’s no problem.”

The Conference

The Mohawk delegation was then allowed to board their flight – which took them from Toronto to El Salvador to Lima, Peru to Bolivia. Once in Bolivia the group travelled to Cochabamba, where the conference was being held. This conference was in response to the Climate Conference in Copenhagen, which took place from December 6 to 18, 2009.

Hemlock explained that many governments of developing nations were not pleased with the way the Copenhagen conference turned out. The Bolivian conference was the response from these developing countries because they are among the most affected by climate change.

“When you go to South America they’re still really dependent on their crops and they’re really feeling the impact right now,” Hemlock said. “They’re really stressing to the world that we have to do something today because people are dying, we’re seeing all these severe changes in the world. So we have to act today. So really, it was a question about how we’re living today. Out of the whole conference we attended, it’s a question of what are we doing? What is our culture and our society surrounding and what is it focusing on? Because today it’s more about Consumerism and Capitalism – how much money can we make and how much can we consume materialistically.”

Hemlock said that people in developed countries do not really make the connection that they things that are consumed have to come from somewhere.

“We can just go into the store and buy it and not give it a second thought,” Hemlock continued. “We’re such a wasteful society today that the only thing we’re giving back is our garbage to the world. And it’s given everything that it has, so we’re seeing everything’s coming a part at the seams in the natural world. So they’re really stressing that we have to act on this today.”

Hemlock said once the Indigenous peoples of South America found out the Mohawk delegation were Indigenous from North America they began asking them questions.

“They asked us, ‘So you’re from that region of the world, are you still connected to nature? Is your community and your people still in tuned with the natural world?’” Hemlock said. “We had to honestly tell them, not really, to a degree but not really. So they asked us, ‘What makes you Indigenous?’”

Hemlock said that they explained where Kahnawake was situated and what surrounds us and the close proximity of Montreal. He stated that because of Kahnawake’s location that, as a people, we too are struggling to try to maintain our identity and live in a sustainable way.

“So they said, ‘So how do you do it? What’s the example that your community is giving to all the surrounding communities about how to live sustainably with the environment, what are you showing them?’” Hemlock recounted. “Again we had to say, we’re doing our best in a lot of areas, but as a community we really have to ask ourselves that question of what are we doing? When we look at our community and seeing so much land being clear-cut; so many of the swamp and marshlands being land-filled; so many dump-sites. There’s all these things within our own little community and we’re supposed to be the Indigenous examples of living healthy and sustainably with the environment.

He said that the Indigenous people of South America were asking questions of them, that they in turn have to bring back to Kahnawake.

“It’s not about going backwards,” Hemlock said, “And that’s what we told the people in the South is that for us, we have to utilize the technologies that are there. We’re not about saying get rid of it, but we’re looking at if it’s sustainable; is it reflective of being healthy for the people, for the environment. And we have to ask ourselves that. Just because it’s technology, that doesn’t make it good. We have to really sit down and ask where do we want our community to go in that sense? Utilizing technology, but keeping the essence of who we are as Indigenous people.”

Hemlock said that they had a good experience at the conference and were able to make some great contacts. The Mohawk Delegation was also able to provide the history of the Haudenosaunee and explain that they travel on their own documentation to the people of South America.

“The trip was really successful in Bolivia,” Hemlock said. “We got the word out there. We have a lot of questions to bring back to the community and a lot of these ideas that we have to really look at how we’re living.”

Following the conference the Mohawk delegation then traveled throughout Bolivia and met various people and enjoyed their time there. They were scheduled to return home on April 28.

Time to come home

“And then it was time to come home,” Hemlock laughed. “We were supposed to be away for ten days.”

When they were leaving Bolivia, the Bolivian authorities looked at their passports and asked them questions about it. He said once they explained what it was there was no problem.

“Even as we were sitting at the airport I could see these three Bolivian police officers or customs [agents],” Hemlock said. “They came walking over and we were wondering if they were going to block us from getting on the plane. They came over and they said ‘Can we see your passports?’”

So they got their passports out and handed them over. Hemlock said that he recognized two of them, but not the third.

“They took it, and they showed the other guy and he was nodding his head and then he looks at us and asks, ‘Indigenos?’ and we said yeah,” Hemlock said. “With what little Spanish we have and what little English they have I explained. It just happened that I was wearing a shirt with the Five Nations flag on it and I explained the structure and who we are. So the three guys shook our hands and said ‘Good work, keep up the good work.’”

The trio then left Bolivia for Lima, Peru without any trouble. Then from Peru, they went to San Salvador, El Salvador and then were supposed to fly back to Toronto.

“We get to El Salvador and we get to the gate and at the gate they were having another security check,” Hemlock said. “So the guy takes it and he looks and he says, ‘Where you going?’”

They explained to him that they are flying to Toronto and explained what their passport is.

“He says, “Let me make a call and I’ll see if you can get on,’” Hemlock recounted. “So he calls the Canadian Embassy.”

The security officer explained that there was three guys carrying Haudenosaunee passports and asked if they should be let on the plane.

“And the word came back from Canada that you don’t let them on the plane with those documents,” Hemlock said. “So they came back and said that they couldn’t let us on the plane. And he said we’re going to have to deport you back to Bolivia.”

This was on a Wednesday, April 28 and they were told they would be deported on Friday, April 30. They were told they would have to stay in the airport because they could not go into El Salvador without an El Salvadorian visa.

Luckily for them, they had a friend that lives in El Salvador - David Blanchard, the author of the Kahnawake Survival School textbook Seven Generations. They called him and explained the situation and Blanchard started making calls to the El Salvadorian government to try to help them out. They also called home and people within the community began mobilizing to try to fins a solution to get them back to Kahnawake.

“The head of Immigration for El Salvador comes walking up to us (at the airport) where we’re sitting,” Hemlock explained after being in El Salvador for three or four hours. “He says I’ve been on the phone with your friend and he’s been telling me about your situation and we want to help you out. We don’t want to deport you, we want you to stay here. But this is something we’ve never dealt with before. We’re going to try to get you out of the airport; we’ll see what we can do, it’s not something we normally do, but we’ll try.”

The Mohawk delegation was then given an eight-day visa to work the issue out.

“We knew there was going to be a struggle ahead of us,” Hemlock said. “Because Canada was really blocking us from returning home on these passports.”

During the next few days they began working on getting home. They met with the El Salvadorian government to discuss the situation. Canada had told the three Mohawks that they only way they would be getting home was if they got an “emergency travel document,” which amounts to an emergency Canadian passport.

“They were telling us that was the only way we were getting home,” Hemlock said. “Unless we signed that then we couldn’t get on the plane.”

Other Kahnawa’kehró:non who travel on the Haudenosaunee passport have experienced similar trouble in recent months. In one situation, a Canadian Embassy wrote a letter to the airline, which allowed the person to get on the plane. While in El Salvador they tried to go this route. They were able to get a copy of the letter and gave it to the Canadian Embassy in San Salvador, who in turn sent it to Ottawa.

“Word came back from Ottawa was, ‘That doesn’t apply anymore. We can’t do that anymore because policy changed,’” Hemlock said. “They gave all these reasons to us why they couldn’t just write us the letter.”

All the airline needed was confirmation from Canada that the three Mohawks would be allowed into Canada. The confirmation could be a phone call or a letter. Meanwhile, Canada’s position was that they had to go home using the emergency travel document.

“We said we can’t do that,” Hemlock said. “We can’t compromise who we are because we left on these passports; we’re not Canadian; we’re not American; our political stance has always been that.”

We are not Canadian or America – we are Haudenosaunee

In 1924, with its Indian Citizenship Act, the United States first offered citizenship to the Haudenosaunee. The act was signed into law by U.S. President Calvin Coolidge on June 2, 1924 and granted full American citizenship to all of America’s Indigenous peoples. The 14th Amendment guarantees citizenship to person born in the U.S., but only if “subject to the jurisdiction thereof” which excluded certain Indigenous peoples in the U.S. Canada followed suit in June 1956, when it amended Section 9 of the Citizenship Act to grant formal Canadian citizenship to Status Indians and Inuit, retroactively to January 1947.

“Our people respectably said ‘Thanks, but no thanks, we’re not Canadians. We were here before you and we’re our own Nation and we have everything that says we are, so you can keep your citizenship, we’re not you,’” Hemlock said “We’ve held that stance until today. We never said we’re Canadian. We’ve never collectively given into that.”

While they were in El Salvador, the Kahnawake delegation met with an international lawyer about their situation.

“Even he said, listening to the situation, ‘What Canada is trying to make you do is very cruel,’” Hemlock said. “He said because, ‘They are putting you in the position of trying to make you submit, which is something your people have never done. And he said now they’re trying to make you do that by making you sign this document.’”

Their eight-day visa ended up turning into a few more. Because of their situation the El Salvadorian government gave them an extension on their visas until May 23. The El Salvadorian government had also gotten involved and were trying to help them return home.

“Canada’s strategy was to try to make it seem like they were helping us by giving us this emergency travel document,” Hemlock said. “But for our people it was, like we already had 30 years of travelling on this document (Haudenosaunee passport). And 2002 was the last time Canada’s immigration policy was revamped and even since then, we have still been travelling on this document. I even have a stamp (in his passport) coming back from Geneva from Canada. So the precedent is there. It’s just that now is the chance to really make it difficult, to really make it hard [for us].”

While there was people working on the situation from El Salvador, there was also people working on it from this side of the world. The first people they were told to talk to about this issue was Immigration Canada. From Immigration Canada they were told to talk to the Canada Border Service Agency.

Hemlock said the initial response from the CBSA was to let them on the plane; that there wasn’t a problem. Hemlock said that the CBSA even offered to call the airline. The Mohawk delegation were supposed to be on their way home on May 7 after the CBSA offer on May 5.

“Then May 6 rolls around and we get a call back from CBSA saying ‘Oh yeah, sorry, no we can’t do that, we can’t call the airline, it’s against policy, they have to get this emergency travel document,’” Hemlock remembered. “They were really making it difficult for us. They were really doing what they could to make us sign that thing.

“But for us, we weren’t there for just us –me, Kahnawiio and Tyler,” Hemlock continued. “We were sent there by our people. And so any decisions that we were going to make was going to impact our people. It was going to impact our people who travel on the Haudenosaunee passport, it was going to impact our people who say we are who we say were are and act accordingly to that. So we knew that we really had to take care and be patient and really look at the situation before making any kind of decision.”

On May 7 members of the Kahnawake delegation met with the Canadian Embassy in San Salvador. It was during this meeting that they were told that they would have to fill out a passport form in order to get the emergency travel document. They were also told that they would have to sign an additional document to provide for a security check to verify their identities. The Mohawks told the Embassy officials that was fine, but anything with Canadian Citizenship on it would not be signed.

Hemlock said that they were then told that everywhere it had citizenship on it not to put Canadian; they were told they could write Mohawk, if they so choose. The Mohawks were told once they arrived back in Canada that the document would be torn up and that would be it.

“We’re looking at it and something about it didn’t feel right,” Hemlock said “In the pit of my stomach, it still didn’t feel right, even with that. They were doing everything they could to make sure we didn’t come home on these (Haudenosaunee passports), and we knew that. They were saying it’s an unsecure document. And we said we understand that. We’re currently in the works on getting everything updated.”

The Haudenosaunee Documentation Committee is currently in negotiations with the U.S. to get the new passport recognized. The new passport will meet international standards.

“They then said not only is it unsecure, we don’t recognize it,” Hemlock said “So they’re blocking everything that they can to prevent us from travelling n our own documentation. Even though we’re going through all the means of getting it recognized.”

“What I can tell you is that consular officials at the Canadian Embassy in San Salvador are aware of the case of two individuals who were denied boarding a flight to Canada because they were not in possession of Canadian Passports,” Alain Cacchione, a spokesperson for Foreign Affairs Canada, told Iorì:wase. “Consular officials have offered consular assistance to provide emergency travel documents. Due to the Privacy Act, we cannot provide additional details on this particular case. We would also like to remind Canadians that the Canadian passport is the only reliable and universally accepted travel and identification document available to Canadians for the purpose of international travel. For this reason, we strongly encourage Canadians to apply for a passport before travelling abroad.”

Going through the U.S.?

Meanwhile, the Haudenosaunee was working on getting them to come through the U.S. to get home. The work wasn’t going as well as they hoped, as the word they got back from there was that they would have to get an emergency American passport.

“I’ll give the Americans credit for calling it what it was,” Hemlock said.

They booked a flight on Tuesday, May 11 to Miami, Florida. They went to the airport and tried to get on the plane. As soon as they got to the airline and showed them their passports, they were told that they would have to check with American authorities. After about 30 minutes they were told that the American embassy wanted them to go there to get an emergency passport.

“We could feel our blood boiling a little bit,” Hemlock said.

The Kahnawake delegation then went to meet with the Americans. They explained the situation and the word they were getting from Canada and now they were getting the same reaction from the U.S.

“Which is something totally new because now both Canada and the U.S. were towing the line that they have to come home this document,” Hemlock said. “And it was a tough situation now, because that was our only means home. And we used everything we could to say we can return home. We used international law, the Declaration of Human Rights, and the covenant on Political and Civil Rights of the UN – of which Canada signed on to – which states that any person has the right to return home That’s a human right. And which Canada said, yes you do, yes you have that right, once you sign this paper – once you get this document, for security reasons. They kept saying it was for security reasons.”

But by this point Hemlock said that Canada had done its research on them and knew who they were. Canada went so far as to check their band numbers. And at every point, the Kahnawake delegation checked out.

“They weren’t budging though,” Hemlock said, “They wanted us to sign this document. They were saying for security reasons. All we wanted to do was go home.”

Hemlock said that they received an email to go meet with the American embassy. They met with a guy named Michael Cole at the American embassy. Hemlock said that Cole told them they wanted to get them home and were wondering about their situation – as they did not have much direct contact with American authorities, as they were trying to go through Canada. Cole then took all of their documents, including their passports, birth certificates and Red Cards and sent copies to Miami.

“Then a woman from Customs and Immigration comes in and says, “I just wanted to let you all know that I’m from Texas and my father’s Apache, he was an Apache Indian. And as soon as I found out about you boys I could hear my father say you get those boys home right now,’” Hemlock recounted. “She then said, ‘When I first heard I couldn’t sleep because I was so worried about you boys. I woke up and I turned on the Discovery Channel just so I could get to sleep. And guess who I saw on the Discovery Channel? They had on a documentary on about the Mohawk Ironworkers in New York. I couldn’t believe it!’”

She also said that the next day she told the embassy all about Mohawks and how they helped build New York.

“She said, ‘I understand about what you are saying that you are not an American, you’re not a Canadian’ so we’re going to do everything that we can to try and get you home,’” Hemlock continued.

With everything sent to Miami on May 13, Cole told them that they were hoping to get them back to the U.S. by Monday, May 17. That same night Hemlock got a call from Cole saying that he just got off the phone with Miami and was told to get them on the plane the following day, which was Friday, May 14. So they booked a flight to Miami.

“We’re finally going home now after this long ordeal,” Hemlock said.

That day they got everything ready for their return home. And then they got a call from Cole.

“He says that he just got a call from Miami and they’re a little hesitant right now, we’re crossing our fingers,” Hemlock remembered.

Cole told them that he would go to the airport with them and try to help them get through. So off to the airport they went. Just as they got to the airport they saw a fax come in from Miami – the fax that would decide their fate.

“The guy looks at us and says ‘Here’s your tickets, Miami gave the green light,’” Hemlock said, “Michael Cole stayed with us the whole way. Then the head of immigration, from when we first got there, was waiting for us [at the gate].”

He bid them farewell and made sure that they had a good stay in El Salvador and saw them off.

Getting home

They got into Miami and were going through Customs – which was packed with travelers from all over the world.

“I look and see six Customs and Immigrations guards standing there in the hall,” Hemlock said. “In my head I jokingly said, maybe they’re here for us. And then the woman looks at me, Tyler and Kahnawiio and says ‘That’s them!’ and they come towards us.”

Hemlock said they asked for their passports and brought them to an office. From where they were they could see the lines getting longer and longer. They then handed them back their passports and while still flanked by the guards they started going back towards the Customs lines. The woman than had them use the diplomatic exit. Once through there the head of security was there to meet them.

“He said ‘So how was your trip? We’re really happy to see that you’re back safe and sound. We heard all about what you guys went through and how long you guys were out there,’” Hemlock relayed.

He handed them their bags and wanted to know their flight information for their return flight to Plattsburgh, New York. The woman explained to them that they received their files the night before. She said she spent the night studying their pictures and information because they wanted to catch them right away so they wouldn’t get caught in the long Customs lines. They even asked them about the environmental conference and the rest of their trip.

“You’re doing really good work, they said,” Hemlock said. “We want you to keep up the good work that you guys are doing.”

The next day at the Fort Lauderdale airport the Mohawk delegation received the same treatment and made their flight to Plattsburgh.

“We got home and we didn’t have to sign anything but they told us from now on we may be scrutinizing this a little closer,” Hemlock said. “So on our part we have to continue the work that we’ve been doing already. We knew this whole time that we were out there, that a ten day trip turned into 29 and we knew that the easiest thing would have been to sign those documents right at the get-go. But that’s not what we were sent out there for. That’s not who we said we were. We knew, coming home, we were still representing our people and we acted accordingly.”

“In contemporary times, a national passport exists as the ultimate expression of identity,” Thomas Deer, a technician with the Haudenosaunee Documentation Committee, said. “When Haudenosaunee Chief Deskaheh was dispatched to the League of Nations in 1923 to press for our rights in the international arena, the Haudenosaunee understood that if he traveled on documents belonging to the Dominion of Canada - it would surely undermine our claims of sovereignty. Likewise, in 1977 when the Haudenosaunee Delegation traveled to the United Nations in Geneva, the Grand Council of Chiefs felt it once again needed to travel abroad as sovereigns in order to demonstrate its integrity as a sovereign people. Since 1977, the Haudenosaunee Passport has been mass-produced for all of its citizens.

“The Haudenosaunee Passport is a non-violent expression of our distinct identity as a sovereign people,” Deer concluded. “While both Canada and the United States claim us as their citizens, the Haudenosaunee Passport is a constant reminder that our people have never acquiesced our citizenship as Haudenosaunee people. It also provides our people an alternative to acquiring Canadian or U.S. documentation.”

[email protected]

— Iorì:wase

Reader Opinions
JUN 09  •  Kanentokon will be the guest on Reality Check on on Tues June 15 at 7pm EST.
Rebecca MGH
JUN 09  •  I am so proud of these young men! you represent your people well!
JUN 08  •  I'm very proud of the guys for standing up for their principles and their beliefs, which are at the core of who we are. Canada, and to some extent the US, did try to get them to submit. Their parent should be very proud.
Cynthia Jacobs Day
JUN 04  •  Good job on the article,Greg.Proud of our boys, standing up for what they beleive in.
JUN 04  •  Good for them! I'm happy for them. They did all the right things. I'm glad Greg wrote about this.
JUN 02  •  Good article! I learned a lot from reading it. (I bet they were never so happy to see Plattsburgh!)
Jeci Tekentenhawitha Goodleaf
JUN 01  •  Well done Greg, It's nice to see that at least 1 media outlet in this community is willing to share this story with others.


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