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Anger over Biron award grows in Akwesasne

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Mr. Biron and Canadian Border Services Officer Yves Soumillon were honored by Governor General David Johnston Friday for their actions in a November 2008 accident on Cornwall Island.

Mr. Biron of the Akwesasne Mohawk Police Service and Mr. Soumillon unsuccessfully attempted to save Edward and Eileen Kassian from their burning car, according to a news release from the governor general’s office.

The news release did not mention that Mr. Biron had been pursuing the speeding van that crashed into the Kassians’ vehicle. On the evening of the incident, Mr. Biron had attempted to stop suspected cigarette smuggler Dany Gionet, 21, of Quebec after receiving a tip that Mr. Gionet’s vehicle appeared to be loaded with contraband. A high speed pursuit ended with Gionet crashing into the Kassians’ vehicle, killing all three people.

The award left members of the Kassian family wondering how and why Mr. Biron received the award. Rep. William L. Owens, D-Plattsburgh, had since pledged to seek out answers for the family.

A petition on www.petitiononlinecanada.com calling for Mr. Biron to resign had 129 signatures as of Tuesday night, with nearly 100 of those received over the last several days.

Donna Benedict of Cornwall, Ont., said her family members had erected a sign over the weekend, which said “Akwesasne Demands Biron gone,” near the site of the crash. Someone removed the sign within 12 hours of its placement, she said.

Not all of the protest is rooted in the November 2008 crash. Some are livid over another pursuit last October ending in the deaths of Dakota Benedict, 22, and Amber Lynn Aliff, 19, of the St. Regis Mohawk Reservation.

Ms. Aliff had run a stop sign in the village of St. Regis, Que., and Mr. Biron directed her to pull over. Ms. Aliff did not, and a pursuit persisted into Hogansburg, where she failed to negotiate a turn and crashed into a tree.

A police surveillance video later revealed Mr. Biron stopped his pursuit moments before the crash.

Mr. Benedict’s stepfather, Joseph N. Sawatis, was a volunteer firefighter who responded to the wreck that night. He soon realized one of the victims was his stepson.

“All the way home I’m thinking, what am I going to tell my wife?” he said. “It wasn’t a pretty sight.”

Mr. Sawatis said the young adults had been partying that night prior to the pursuit, which was why they didn’t stop for Mr. Biron. He was certain why his stepson was not still alive today.

“If he wouldn’t have chased them, they would still be here right now,” he said. “We want him off our department and off our reserve.”

Ms. Aliff’s mother, Laura Williams of Norwood, echoed a similar sentiment.

“We just want justice. I just don’t think he should be harming anybody else. We want him off the street,” Ms. Williams said. “Don’t they see a pattern going on here? It’s definitely a pattern.”

“I wish there was something I could do. I don’t know where to start,” Ms. Williams added.

Mr. Sawatis said a community meeting regarding the issue will be held at 6:30 p.m. Thursday in the St. Regis, Que., recreation hall.

An advisory committee reviews all selections before making decisions on the award, according to Annabelle Cloutier, director of public affairs for the office of the secretary to the governor general.

“It’s really the act itself that was looked at,” she said. “Was this person’s life put in danger by trying to save another?”

“There is an investigation into what happened and if the events are meeting the criteria,” she said.

But the total number of nominations, who nominated Mr. Biron and the information the advisory committee reviewed while selecting recipients are not public information, Ms. Cloutier said.

“It’s private information, basically,” she said. “It’s not for us to disclose this.”

The governor general’s office has no plans to change its award for Mr. Biron, Ms. Cloutier said.

“The decision was made,” she said. “Right now, the award still stands.”

Brendan M. White, spokesman for the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne, deferred comment to Police Chief Jerry Swamp, who could not be reached for comment Tuesday. Representatives from the Akwesasne Mohawk Police Commission, who have jurisdiction over the police department, will not be available for comment until after a meeting next week, Mr. White said.

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