There is growing outrage in a community near Cornwall, Ont., after a police officer was awarded a Medal of Bravery for an incident in which the high-speed pursuit of a suspect ended in the death of three people.
Gov. Gen. David Johnston handed Akwesasne Mohawk police Const. Michael Biron the medal last Friday for putting his own life at risk to attempt to rescue an elderly couple after a van collided with their car on Nov. 14, 2008.
The award is contentious because Biron had been the driver of a police vehicle in pursuit of the driver of the van, who was suspected of smuggling cigarettes. At the height of the chase, Biron's vehicle was pursuing at speeds reaching 160 km/h.
Equally troubling for residents in the community is that six months ago, Biron was involved in a second police chase that ended with the death of a young couple.
Officer attempted to rescue elderly couple
In the 2008 incident, Biron was in pursuit of the suspected cigarette smuggler when the suspect's van collided with a car. Both vehicles burst into flames.
Canada Border Services officer Yves Soumillon also responded to the crash from the Canadian port of entry on Cornwall Island, just metres from the crash site.
Biron and Soumillon rushed to the car and tried to open its damaged doors and save Edward and Eileen Kassian, both from Massena, N.Y. They were unable to rescue the 77-year-old couple before flames engulfed the vehicle. The driver of the van also died.
Michael Kassian, the couple's son, called the award an injustice for his family and their friends.
"I don't think he did anything to save their lives," said Kassian. "I think he did more using poor judgment based on the fact that he ensued this chase."
After the collision, Biron was charged with criminal negligence and dangerous driving causing death, but those charges were later dismissed.
New York State Democratic congressman Bill Owens said that based on the Kassian family concerns, he is contacting Ottawa to find out why the award was given to Biron.
Timmy Currier, the chief of police for Massena and a neighbour of the Kassians, said he believes Biron stepped over the line.
"We're not going to pursue for minor violations. and most particularly, we're not going to pursue when people's lives are in danger … either the person being pursued, or the officer or innocent bystanders. In the Kassians case, their death was avoidable," said Currier.
Young friends killed last year
In the 2011 incident, 19-year-old Amber Aliff was driving her car with two passengers when they ran a stop sign. Biron set off in a brief pursuit from the Mohawk territory and into New York State but broke off the pursuit at an intersection.
A few hundred metres from the intersection, the car crashed into a tree, killing Aliff and 22-year-old passenger Dakota Benedict.
"I just believe that if he had stopped chasing them at the border then they'd be here today," said Benedict's mother, Michelle Sawatis.
Residents of Akwesasne have started a petition to remove Biron from the police force.
Akwesasne police not involved in nomination
In a joint statement released Thursday, the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne, the Akwesasne Mohawk Police Commission and the Akwesasne police said Biron was nominated for the award without their knowledge or involvement.
They said they would not be providing comment on "a process in which they did not participate."
A spokeswoman with the Office of the Secretary of the Governor General said the award was given in recognition of Biron putting his own life in danger to attempt to rescue another person.
"It is not related to any other incident that might have taken place following this event," said Marie-Pierre Bélanger in a statement.
Bélanger said witnesses, investigators and police officers are contacted as part of the research process, but not family members of the victims of the crash.
Michael Kassian said he was never contacted about the award, and said if he had been, he would not have endorsed any award for Biron.
"It's a slap in the face," said Kassian.