Bravery award raises outrage at Awkesasne

An officer’s bravery award angers a family who say he caused the deadly crash
Pinpointing blame
Adrian Wyld/CP

It’s a thin line, sometimes, between brave acts and foolish ones. Just ask Mike Biron, a constable with the Akwesasne Mohawk police near Cornwall, Ont.

Late last month, Governor General David Johnston pinned the Medal of Bravery on Biron’s chest. In the official citation, he praised the officer for trying “desperately” to pull an elderly couple from a burning car. But less than two years earlier, Biron faced criminal charges related to that wreck. Even today, the family of the couple who died in the crash blame Biron for causing it. They’ve sued him and his force, and are outraged by the award.

The controversy stems from a pursuit on Cornwall Island in November 2008, when Biron chased a suspected tobacco smuggler through the streets at more than 160 km/h. The suspect, Dany Gionet, a 21-year-old from Quebec, blew through two four-way stops before his van crashed into another car. The two vehicles caught fire. Biron and Canadian Border Services officer Yves Soumillon tried to yank the older couple from the other car, but they were too late. Gionet, along with Eileen and Edward Kassian from upstate New York, died at the scene.

Almost immediately, questions arose about Biron’s role in the crash. Why was he chasing a cigarette smuggler—not exactly a high-level crime—through quiet streets? Why didn’t he call off the pursuit earlier, before hitting such dangerous speeds? Although Biron was eventually charged in the incident—with criminal negligence causing death and dangerous driving causing death—he was cleared of all charges in the fall of 2010. And sometime between then and now, someone nominated him for a Governor General’s Decoration for Bravery, which he and Soumillon received in April.

For Doug Kassian, Eileen and Edward’s son, the award was an insult. “This is one of the people my family views as partially responsible for the death of my parents,” he says. “Now he receives an award for bravery?” Kassian, who is suing Biron, his supervisor and others for the accident, wants to know who nominated Biron and why the Governor General chose him for the award. He’s not alone in asking. Kassian’s congressman, Bill Owens, is writing a letter to the Governor General to inquire about the process.

Remarkably, Biron was involved in a second fatal chase last year, and some in the Akwesasne community want him off their streets. They may get their wish. Last week, the Akwesasne council and police said Biron’s nomination happened without their knowledge. Police Chief Jerry Swamp told Maclean’s Biron is now training for other duties and won’t return to patrol. The change, Swamp says, was planned long ago and has nothing to do with either the crash or the award.