(Jason Cole, left, and Sarahlee Skidders, right, Facebook photo)
By Jorge Barrera
APTN National News
A paraplegic Akwesasne woman has launched a $600,000 lawsuit against Canada’s border agency alleging she was held “hostage” by border guards so she would give up her boyfriend, according to a court document.
Sarahlee Skidders, 24, confined to a wheelchair as a result of a 2007 car accident, was threatened with several charges and held by Canada Border Services Agency officials for five hours until her boyfriend, Jason Cole, turned himself in, according to the statement of claim.
The lawsuit, filed in Cornwall, Ont., this past December, also names individual CBSA border agents.
CBSA said it could not comment on matters before the court.
The lawsuit alleges that CBSA violated Skidders’ Charter rights, falsely imprisoned her and intentionally inflicted mental and emotional suffering.
Justice Canada lawyers and Skidder’s lawyer Andrew Unger are currently working to establish a timeline for Ottawa to file its statement of defence. Justice Canada is also deciding whether to pay for the defence of the border guards named in the lawsuit.
“Ms. Skidders was unlawfully detained and essentially held as a hostage by CBSA for five hours. We are seeking justice and compensation for her and to ensure that this treatment does not go unanswered,” said Unger. “This is also part of a broader problem of racial profiling, intimidation, and harassment of members of the Mohawks of Akwesasne and other indigenous persons by CBSA officers at the Port of Entry in Cornwall.”
The Akwesasne Mohawk reserve straddles the Canada-U.S. border and sits about 120 kilometres west of Montreal. Part of Akwesasne, an area known as Snye, sits in Canada but is only accessible by road through the U.S. Akwesasne also includes Cornwall Island, which sits within Canada territory in the middle of the St. Lawrence River.
CBSA moved its border post from the island in 2009 after Akwesasne refused to allow armed border guards on its territory, leaving the island trapped in a grey zone between countries. Anyone crossing in from the U.S. to the island has to first check-in at the Canadian border post on the mainland in Cornwall.
On Dec. 30, 2011, at about 11 a.m. Skidders, who is diabetic, was driving her customized vehicle allowing for manual operation and stopped in at the Canadian border post to check-in. She was briefly questioned by a CBSA agent who told her drive to the customs office for secondary inspection, according to the statement of claim.
There, CBSA agent Andrea Gladding accused her of failing to check-in on previous occasions and then asked her about her boyfriend Cole, who was wanted on a tobacco-related Excise Act charge. When Skidders said she knew Cole she was asked to exit the vehicle and enter the customs office. She was helped into her wheelchair and rolled in, said the document.
After a wait of about 30 minutes, Gladding told Skidders her supervisor, Nicole Piche, and a second officer wanted to speak to her in a back office. Skidder said there were too many obstacles for her to get her wheelchair through. The two officers then came out to interrogate her, first asking her how long she had been in a wheelchair and whether she was “certain she could not walk,” said the document.
“(The CBSA officers) continued to repeatedly ask (Skidders) whether she could stand or walk and she had to repeatedly assure them that she was not able to walk,” the document said.
Piche and the second CBSA officer, identified as John Doe 2 and described as a balding man with a stocky build, then began to interrogate Skidders about her boyfriend, their relationship, where he worked, lived, habits and where he could be located.
Skidders told the CBSA officers Cole was likely at work.
Piche and the second CBSA officer then threatened Skidders saying she was facing charges for failing to report, obstruction of justice along with aiding and abetting which could land her in jail, said the document. They told her that they had been “watching her” and that they could wipe away her pending charges if she cooperated with them, the document said.
Skidders then asked whether she needed a lawyer. Piche told Skidders that was only required if she was hiding something, according to the statement of claim.
Skidders was then moved to the far end of the customs office and Gladding put a heavy chair in front of her so she couldn’t move the wheelchair. Gladding then warned Skidder that she would be taken out of her wheelchair if she tried to leave the office. She was also again warned she would face the list of charges if Cole did not turn himself in, said the document.
Skidders finally manage to contact her sister at 3 p.m. via text message. Her sister, Larri-Lee Skidders, and their mother, Julia Back-Skidders, arrived soon after at the customs officer. Sarahlee Skidder’s mother noticed that her daughter did not seem well and asked the CBSA agents if she could give her some food and drink because of the diabetes. She was refused and a CBSA agent gave Skidders a bottle of water, the document said.
At about 4 p.m., five hours after she was pulled in for secondary inspection, Cole was finally contacted and he arrived at the customs office.
Skidders was released without charge.
“There is a pattern at the port of entry in Cornwall of harassment, intimidation and unlawful detention, particularly of young Native people and the old. I have heard so many horror stories over the last couple of years it would blow your mind,” said Unger. “This, in a way, is more vicious; they threatened to take her out of her wheelchair, put impediments in her path so she was cornered. They did not provide any sympathy.”