CORNWALL, Ont. - A U.S. border crossing in eastern Ontario remained closed Monday amid a showdown between aboriginals protesting against border guards carrying guns and a federal cabinet minister who refused to back down on the policy.
Canadian Border Services Agency workers left their posts on Cornwall Island, citing safety concerns, just before midnight Sunday in advance of the Akwesasne Mohawk demonstration.
About 40 Mohawks, who were camped out near the building, said they're worried that arming guards with handguns could lead to violence on their land.
In Ottawa, Public Safety Minister Peter Van Loan said giving customs officers the ability to protect themselves was a promise made by the Conservatives in the 2006 election campaign.
"No border crossings are being exempted from that policy, that's a policy nationwide to protect communities, to protect Canadians, to protect our border service officers, to give them the security they need to do their job," Van Loan said.
"A decision was taken to close that crossing, to close the bridges. That will remain the case until such time as the local Mohawk band indicates they're willing to accept the border officers being armed as government policy."
Travellers were being advised to use the Prescott point of entry, which is 60 kilometres west, or the Dundee crossing, which is 17 kilometres southeast, instead of the Seaway International Bridge - which handles some 2.4 million commercial and passenger trips annually.
There has been consultation about the community's concerns and attempts at a compromise - such as having a Mohawk liaison officer work with border guards - that has not been accepted, Van Loan added.
NDP MP Brian Masse said the government should negotiate a resolution to the border crossing standoff.
There's no need for the government to insist that all border crossings be treated identically, said Masse, who added aboriginal communities have "different types of arrangements" with Ottawa on many issues.
"We should be sitting down and thinking about things that work and exploring all avenues," he said.
"If it's all or nothing tactics, they seem to cause more problems, create more frustration and actually destabilize security as opposed to looking for a real solution."
The protest also comes as new rules kick in requiring that travellers have a passport or another form of secure travel document to enter the U.S.
In 2007, the Conservative government set aside $175 million over two years to begin equipping border guards with pistols, eventually choosing the 9mm Beretta PX4 Storm as the standard sidearm.
Over the next decade, 4,800 officers will eventually be armed at land and marine border points. Officers are required to file detailed reports whenever they draw or discharge their weapons.
The officers in Cornwall were to begin carrying the weapons on Monday.