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Search for man whose boat was found near eight migrants stretches into third full day

MONTREAL — Akwesasne Mohawk Police continued to search Sunday for a local man whose boat was found where the bodies of eight migrants were pulled from the St. Lawrence River last week.
Searchers dock at a marina in Akwesasne, Que. Friday, March 31, 2023. The search continues for a man missing from the Mohawk community of Akwesasne in an area of the St. Lawrence River where the bodies of eight migrants were recovered earlier this week. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

MONTREAL — Akwesasne Mohawk Police continued to search Sunday for a local man whose boat was found where the bodies of eight migrants were pulled from the St. Lawrence River last week.

Police said in a statement they would continue searching the area until sunset for Casey Oakes, 30, whom officers have been seeking since Thursday when the first of the migrants' bodies were discovered.

Police have said the eight victims consisted of two families, one of Romanian and another of Indian descent. Authorities said they were allegedly attempting to illegally cross into the United States from Canada through Akwesasne Mohawk Territory, which straddles provincial and international boundaries and includes regions of Quebec, Ontario and New York State.

Oakes was last seen Wednesday night operating a boat that was found next to the migrants' bodies, but police have made no direct connections between Oakes and the deaths. Some items of clothing that belong to Oakes have also been found and the boat has been placed in secure storage for inspection.

Police identified two of the migrants on Saturday as Cristina (Monalisa) Zenaida Iordache, 28, and 28-year-old Florin Iordache, who was carrying Canadian passports for two young children — aged one and two — who were among the victims. All four were of Romanian descent. 

The identities of four Indian nationals also plucked from the marsh have not yet been confirmed and their next of kin had not been notified. 

Police also said a male found inside a cabin on St. Regis Island on Saturday is not connected to the investigation. 

Authorities estimated Saturday they had about eight kilometres worth of local waterways to search.

The bodies of five adults and one child were found in a marshy area on Thursday and the bodies of a second child and an adult woman were recovered on Friday.

Akwesasne Mohawk Police Chief Shawn Dulude has previously said signs of potential trouble surfaced on Wednesday night when the force received calls from people who reported hearing shouts from the river. Those calls came in at around 9:30 p.m., the last time Oakes was last seen. 

Officers patrolled the shoreline at the time using night-vision goggles and body-heat sensors, but came up empty. 

In February, police in Akwesasne reported an increase in human smuggling into the Mohawk territory.

Authorities have said the territory's unique geography makes it a popular spot for human smugglers, with police making 48 separate interceptions involving 80 people trying to enter the United States illegally since January. 

Most of them have been of Indian or Romanian descent.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said during an appearance on a French-language talk show Sunday that his thoughts are with those affected by the tragedy, and that he wants to discourage people from putting themselves in danger to cross the border irregularly.

"That's part of the reason why we signed an improvement to the Safe Third Country agreement with the United States to regulate and encourage immigration in a regular, and not irregular, way," Trudeau said on Tout le monde en parle, a popular Radio-Canada television show.

When asked if those changes, which see asylum seekers turned back at irregular crossings, would push people to take more dangerous routes across the border, Trudeau said the U.S. is a safe country and immigrants and asylum seekers should be treated the same way across the entire border. 

"We continue to be an open and welcoming country, but we privilege people who come in a regular way," Trudeau said. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 2, 2023.

Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press

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