The water of the St. Lawrence River runs brown in tempestuous weather. Hemmed in by coarse scrub, it swirls around the marshes and through the channels, the tips of the waves white and frothing as it charts a course from the Great Lakes to the North Atlantic Ocean.
Even in mild weather, the river must be navigated carefully for cross-currents, shallows and shoals. The locals know not to tempt it when it’s choppy.
But on one evening in late March, this is where two families boarded a boat bound for the U.S. border, trusting a man they believed would ferry them across the river to a better life.
The next day, six bodies were found in a patch of marshland, with two more — children, one and two years old — found about 24 hours later. They belonged to two families: the Iordaches from Romania and the Chaudharis from India.
It’s a journey countless migrants have made, using the same route and plying a deeply entrenched smuggling industry in the area. And the Mohawk Nation at Akwesasne has found itself in the crosshairs of it.
For some residents, smuggling is about a sovereign right to move about their territory, which straddles the U.S. and Canadian border at the confluence of the provinces of Ontario and Quebec, and the state of New York. For others, it’s a lucrative way to make money.
“When people don’t have a good upbringing, you don’t know what to do unless it’s quickly,” says one young mother, who works as a people smuggler. She spoke to Global News on the condition of anonymity, to help the public understand the industry
“I do what I need to do to help my family. This is my job.”
The number of smugglers operating here is small, locals say, but those few have marred the reputation of a prosperous First Nation community. And it’s why, without jurisdictional authority to deal with the problem itself, it will continue to thrive.
“Most smugglers will say it’s our inherent right to take things through our territory. Others do it for pure greed,” says Akwesasne historian and journalist Doug George-Kanentiio.
“It’s part of our history of undermining U.S. or Canadian authority. If they try to impose something, you fight back, and this is seen as part of that tradition, our heritage.
“That border has been our burden to carry ever since 1790.”
The St. Lawrence River: a ‘treacherous’ crossing
Cornwall is Ontario’s easternmost settlement, located on the shores of the St. Lawrence. Clinging to the river banks, wooden bungalows overlook the gushing waters and the islands beyond, where Akwesasne land lies.
From Cornwall, it’s about a 15-minute trip to New York State by boat, making it an expeditious route for smugglers. Most of the traffic here goes south, into the U.S., in an attempt to evade tough visa requirements. Northbound migrants used to travel by land, via the unofficial border crossing at Roxham Road, which closed in late March in the face of escalating irregular migration.
The riverbanks in New York that smugglers aim their boats for are part of a stretch of rugged bush and farmland known by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) as the Swanton Sector. This area, incorporating parts of the states of Vermont, New York and New Hampshire, opposite the convergence of Ontario and Quebec, is the most popular route for migrants of any of the eight sectors spanning the length of the 9,000-kilometre U.S.-Canada border — and the numbers keep rising.
Just six months into 2023, U.S. Customs and Border Protection has recorded 2,670 apprehensions or encounters with migrants crossing from Canada into the U.S. in the Swanton Sector. That’s more than double (1,065) what was recorded in the entire year of 2022.
It may look like a quick trip, but it’s far from easy. It’s why locals are called upon to manoeuvre the choppy waters.
“It’s treacherous. There are lots of cross currents, things underneath the water, shallows and shoals you have to watch out for,” George-Kanentiio says.
The river was rough, and the winds were strong the night the Iordaches and the Chaudharis boarded a vessel bound for New York. Locals say they didn’t stand a chance. And they weren’t the first migrant lives the St. Lawrence River has claimed.
In 2015, two men from India drowned, and a third was rescued by bystanders while attempting to be smuggled into the U.S. on a Seadoo when it capsized.
The problem, some say, is that smuggling brokers are attempting to cut corners by hiring people with drug or alcohol abuse issues who are willing to take less pay.
Akwesasne man Casey Oakes, whom police consider a “person of interest” in their investigation into the recent deaths, has a history of drug use and addiction, court documents show. He also has a history of using the waterways around Akwesasne for cross-border smuggling.
More than one month on from the tragedy, Oakes is still missing. The last update from Akwesasne police on Oakes’ disappearance came on April 13, appealing to the public for information.
The raging St. Lawrence gushes brown one cloudy afternoon in mid-April when Global News visits Cornwall. Locals speak of the recent tragedy in hushed voices. Most say that they hadn’t seen the wide-scale signs of people smuggling operations for many years when they’d wake to find clothing in their yards or along the road. But, some say it’s still happening — often in plain sight.
Global News tracked down a convicted smuggler in Cornwall who agrees to speak on the condition of anonymity. She does not know the Iordaches or Chaudharis or anyone involved in helping them leave Canada. But she does know Casey Oakes. And she knows how the industry works.
We’re inside the business she runs in the centre of town when one of Oakes’ closest friends enters. The conversation soon turns to the question of his whereabouts. No one knows where he is or has heard from him.
“Why did he look at that boat and think it was OK for nine people — and two kids?” the woman says, incredulous.
“Something happened in that boat. And if it’s capsizing, he’s saving himself.”
‘We get people across if they’re going for a good reason’
Far from prying ears, she takes me out to her car parked on the street to explain how the people smuggling industry works. She knows; she was arrested and charged for her role in it last year and is awaiting sentencing.
A former Akwesanse resident who now lives in Cornwall, the woman says she has agreed to speak because she thinks her “criminal” label is unfair. Migrants will cross whether or not she helps, she says, so she is trying to do so in a “responsible” way, with safe cars, safe boatmen and ensuring lone females are alright.
“People have choices. They pay you to do the job, and then you f–k off. People have told me not to care about the migrants. But I do care. I want to make sure they’re safe,” she says.
“We’re not all crackheads. There are responsible people, too. People do it all along the river. White people, too, it’s not just the ‘natives.’”
The woman says she first got involved in smuggling when she was about 25. Initially, it was cigarettes. Then, marijuana. But when Canada legalized that in 2018, the industry dried up.
About 10 years ago, a friend asked if she would give a girl “a ride.”
“She was a white girl. She spoke English. I was worried because she had a baby. I asked if she was going by river. Normally you’re not allowed to talk to them. You be quiet, and you get the job done. But me, with my big mouth, I couldn’t help it.
“I had three little ones at the time. I was worried about her. I’m a mother, too.”
The woman refused to let the baby board the boat. Instead, she bundled him into her van, using her son’s identification to drive him over the Seaway International Bridge and into the U.S.
“We ended up talking, and she was in an abusive relationship with her boyfriend and was scared to leave him. She lived in Canada. Her boyfriend was calling on the phone and saying he was going to kill her. I could hear him. It was scary.”
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There was a steady stream of migrants being dropped off at her door after that, mostly Vietnamese. She was in charge of driving them to the river — many times, in the middle of the day. She says that most of the people she has smuggled have been crossing into the U.S. to meet up with families. The children often have Canadian citizenship, but the parents don’t. When asked how big the industry is in Cornwall, she says she knows about 20 people who smuggle.
She draws a diagram on my notepad to show the flow of money from start to end, showing a straight line connecting three circles, representing the agencies or “big guy,” the “middle guy” at the border, and the families at the end.
She explains that agencies in Toronto and Montreal are paid between $15,000 and $20,000 per migrant, who then pay the “middle guy” in Cornwall about $4,000 to $6,000 per job. The “middle guy” then has to pay a local driver, the boatmen, and the landing people. The migrants’ families on the U.S. side pick them up.
She says she smuggled people two to three times per month during that time and eventually became a “bigger guy” in the industry, involved in liaising between the many players.
“I hire safe people, I hire normal people, and we get people across if they’re going for a good reason, and we feed our families, and we stay quiet. This is our job,” she says.
For two years, the woman and four friends acted as drivers and brokers for the agencies. But she insists she only did it because she was desperate.
“My boyfriend fell off the wagon, and we ran out of money. Our electricity was off for three months. We were running an electrical cord from my neighbour’s house just to put on the lights.”
“I’ve been through a lot in my life. If you lived through that, you wouldn’t be okay either.”
The woman says she “never learned good habits,” when she was young and now does what she can to make money. She’s currently facing an eviction notice on her house and is behind on rent for her business.
“I’m talking about this because I don’t want to be labelled. If there’s some lawyer sitting out there in his nice house, with his perfect family and all his money, he just thinks I’m a criminal. But that’s not it.
“I do what I need to do to help my family. In between my struggles.”
‘We’re not hapless participants’
The Akwesasne territory, spread across the Ontario-Quebec and New York state borders, has long been shaped by geopolitics.
Driven from their homelands in New York’s Mohawk Valley during the American Revolution, the Mohawk people were forced to set up “refugee communities” along the St. Lawrence River, George-Kanentiio says. And despite fighting alongside the British, they weren’t consulted when the British drew an arbitrary line through their territory in order to establish Canada, following the 1783 Treaty of Paris.
Industrial development along the St. Lawrence River led to environmental devastation and declining fish stocks, George-Kanentiio says, and meant the people of Akwesasne had to find a new way to make money.
“That’s what led to the smuggling. When you destroy an Indigenous economy, people need to find another way to make a living.”
Akwesasne quickly became a hotspot for tobacco, drugs and arms smuggling, as well as organized crime, George-Kanentiio says. But it was not only due to its geographical location; it was because people were open to taking “an active role in that community.”
“When you approach people in Akwesasne, they’re willing participants — they’re not being exploited at all. (Smuggling networks) do influence us and they do come on our reserve, but we’re not hapless participants.”
Akwesasne had long been a prosperous First Nation with a high standard of living — thanks, largely, to its high graduation rates and the work ethic of its people, George-Kanentiio says. Driving through Cornwall Island, grand houses are plentiful, with enviable views overlooking the water.
But “dirty” money also flows through the community from the smuggling industry, leading to a high rate of drug use and suicides, George-Kanentiio says. “Every family has been affected by this.”
The solution to quashing the human smuggling industry, George-Kanentiio says, is simple: allow the Mohawk people to have jurisdictional authority over their land, including their own police force, and to make decisions “without interference.”
This would mean a dedicated “Mohawk militia” patrolling the St. Lawrence River, actively intervening in smuggling attempts. This would eliminate the issues with a lack of willingness to comply with U.S. and Canadian border enforcement, he says, because locals would be policed by their own people.
“If we get that, we can put an end to human smuggling overnight.”
And, he believes, tragedies such as these can be avoided.
On the night of March 29, locals heard screaming from the river and called 911.
Akwesasne Police confirmed they received two separate calls, one at 10:09 p.m. and one at 10:50 p.m., about yelling on or near the river. In both instances, officers patrolling the shoreline on foot could not hear anything to support those claims.
Following the discovery of the bodies the next day, copies of the calls, as well as body cam footage and the police report, were sent to Quebec’s police watchdog, the Bureau des Enquêtes Indépendantes, which chose not to launch an investigation.
“Our people should have been on the river right away to save those refugees,” George-Kanentiio says.
“We failed them.”
Questions remain over migrant family’s final moments
There are few traces that Florin Iordache ever lived in Canada.
After five years spent trying to persuade the country’s Immigration and Refugee Board to allow him to stay, all that is left of the Roma migrant’s attempt to establish a life abroad is a trail of paperwork and endless questions.
“We’re begging the government for answers,” his cousin, Hagi Voinescu, tells Global News in broken English outside a Starbucks in Scarborough. Another relative, who did not want to be named, translates for him.
“We lost four members of our family just because they didn’t want to go back to Romania.”
The last time Voinescu saw Iordache was about a week before his death. His cousin had just been told the courts had rejected his appeal against his latest deportation order.
“He was so sad, he didn’t want to eat, he was crying, he was feeling so bad for his kids. He kept saying, ‘I don’t want to go back, I don’t want to see my kids in Romania,’” Voinescu says.
About a dozen of the family’s extended members live in Toronto. But Voinescu says none of them knew what Iordache was planning.
He does, however, know the desperation a person needs to feel before turning to a people smuggler. Because he’s done it himself – twice.
Voinescu has just returned to Canada after spending four years in the U.S. He and his wife smuggled themselves into the U.S. by travelling to Montreal and seeking out the help of an “agency. They told him to go to Cornwall and to ask for a man by the name of “John” on the banks of the river. John was a man who was fishing nearby, Voinescu says, who arrived in a mask and hat, to conceal his face.
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He and his wife paid John $1,000 each to board a boat with six or seven other people. They moved to Los Angeles, where they spent four years before he lost his job and the couple ended up sleeping in their car. About three months ago, they drove from Los Angeles to New York State, and boarded another boat bound for Canada.
Voinescu does not know if he and Iordache used the same smuggler — they never discussed it. The first they knew of the family fleeing to the U.S., he says, is when they found out they had died.
“If I knew who John was, I would call him right now and take him to the police,” Voinescu’s relative says.
He understands Iordache made mistakes, but says he only did so to provide for his family.
He’s made mistakes, too. Voinescu was arrested late in 2022 in Virginia in relation to a cash-for-gold robbery scheme. He and two others were alleged to have been extorting Good Samaritans for cash on the side of the road, in exchange for fake gold.
“Sometimes us Gypsies, we commit some crimes, but our crimes are because we want some food,” Voinescu’s relative says.
Both men have now applied for political asylum in Canada.
A Roma family’s search for a better life in Canada
The son of a Roma musician, Iordache first arrived in Toronto in June 2018 from Craiova, Romania — part of a wave of Romanians who arrived in Canada after officials dropped visa requirements for visitors from the country.
Before then, Roma people had faced an uphill battle in having their refugee claims accepted by Ottawa. Former immigration minister Jason Kenney frequently cited the Roma as an example of bogus refugee claimants clogging the system and targeted eastern European nations with billboard and brochure campaigns to dissuade Roma from emigrating to Canada.
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Between 2013 and 2021, the largest group of refugee claims involving race, ethnicity or nationality was Roma claimants from central European countries, according to research by Osgoode Hall Law School’s Refugee Law Lab.
In 2013, 846 Roma refugee applications were received by the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) of Canada, according to IRB data. Only 154 were accepted.
By 2015, more than half of the refugee applications were being given the green light to stay in Canada. By 2018, 899 applicants out of 1,582 were accepted.
“It’s come a long way,” says immigration lawyer Peter Ivanyi, who represented the Iordaches.
“Roma present with horrible stories of incidents of discrimination back home … just like any other ethnic group in need.”
In 2018, Iordache filed a refugee claim along with his partner, Mona Lisa Calderaru, citing the persecution and discrimination against Roma.
On social media, the family appeared to be enjoying their new Canadian lives — with trips to Niagara Falls and Toronto’s beaches. Iordache worked in construction and also busked, singing and playing the keyboard in TTC stations with his wife and children to make ends meet, Voinescu says.
But, two months later, he was apprehended near Blaine, Wash., after jumping off a freight train to flee from American authorities, court documents show. It was this one “stupid” act that Ivanyi says actively worked against him.
“He was irresponsible in 2018 as a 23-year-old. He didn’t do it the right way initially. And the system never forgot it and it held it against him.”
Iordache was deported to Romania from the U.S. and later made his way to France, where he was deported back to his homeland for a “food offence,” according to court documents.
He and his wife returned to Toronto in March 2020 and filed another refugee claim using his wife’s former last name. The couple married a month prior to returning to Canada, for the sole purpose of changing their names to make a new refugee claim.
Iordache failed to show up for his refugee hearing in March 2021 and it was deemed abandoned. In October, Iordache, his pregnant wife and their young daughter, a Canadian citizen, were arrested in Washington state after attempting to cross into the U.S. in a rental car near Pioneer Park in British Columbia.
According to the transcripts from Iordache’s 2021 detention reviews, the couple claimed they had only crossed into the U.S. because they couldn’t use their GPS, and that the sole purpose of their trip was to visit Pioneer Park. But, as noted in the transcripts, the only Pioneer Park near the Canada-U.S. border was a mobile home park.
Iordache stressed that he wasn’t crossing the border to seek asylum, but authorities found items in the car that “make it clear that they intended to relocate to the U.S.” – one of which was a photo, address and rental agreement for a house in Nebraska.
The family was sent back to Canada this time, and while his wife and child were released, pending removal, Iordache was detained.
“I could possibly believe that a person could end up in the United States by accident once, but not two times like you have,” the IRB adjudicator told Iordache.
But two weeks later, he was released after his wife was hospitalized for complications with her pregnancy. Their removal was postponed until the baby was born and the family could be removed safely together.
Ivanyi had been working to change the IRB’s mind. On March 10, he filed an appeal against the couple’s most recent rejection to stay in Canada, according to federal court documents.
It was rejected about two weeks later, Ivanyi says, and the family’s flight home was booked for March 29. The next day, their bodies were found in the St. Lawrence River.
The Canada Border Services Agency declined to comment about the rejection or the flight, citing privacy reasons.
Investigations into deaths ongoing
Investigations into the Iordache and Chaudhari deaths have yielded few results.
Speaking to Global News, Achal Tyagi, superintendent of police for the Indian city of Mehsana, says investigations are ongoing. Investigators were still trying to find the agent who was “involved in sending the family to Canada” and who the local contact in Canada was, but family members in India know little about what the family was planning.
They were a farming family from Mehsana and had arrived in Canada in early February on a tourist visa, Tyagi said. As far as their family in India knew, they planned to travel around Canada.
Tyagi says investigators from India were now waiting for more information from Akwesasne police to help them in their investigations.
Akwesasne Police, located in the Quebec portion of the territory, would not answer questions from Global News on how the boat had capsized or if the families had drowned or had other injuries. They declined to provide any updates on the investigation.
And finding answers in Toronto, where the Iordaches lived, is just as difficult.
Global News visited two of the family’s last known addresses. At their last address, at a sprawling apartment complex in North York, no one had heard of them. At their prior address — another large development in Scarborough known for housing Roma — an elderly man named Marin Caldararu said he had been Iordache’s guarantor since 2019.
They came from the same town in Romania, Caldararu says, and he had twice put up $3,000 to ensure Iordache’s release from detention by the IRB.
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Caldararu said they last spoke about the failed appeal against his deportation over the phone, but Iordache did not tell him he was planning to use a people smuggler.
He was probably too scared to, Caldararu says, because he was his guarantor.
Other guarantors did not return calls from Global News. Neither did those at the Scarborough church he attended.
Micheal T Butch, president of the Toronto Roma Community Centre, says the deaths had hit the community hard. But many Roma people were also reluctant to speak publicly in relation to immigration, as they were fearful of authorities.
The CBSA would not comment on the Iordache’s case. Instead, they provided a general statement on removal orders.
“All individuals who are subject to enforcement action by the CBSA have access to due process and procedural fairness. Once individuals have exhausted all legal avenues of appeal and due process, they are expected to respect our laws and leave Canada or be removed,” the statement said.
The family’s bodies have since been repatriated to Romania for burial. Voinescu and his relative say they appealed to the “international Gypsy community” for donations to get them there. When asked if they’d used a GoFundMe account, they were taken aback, saying they don’t want more money than they need.
“We don’t want money. We just want to know how they died,” Voinescu says. “That’s all we want.”