Tensions emerge in Manitoba border town as more migrants seek refuge


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EMERSON — It is an unusually warm mid-February night in a sleepy border town that is anything but these days. There is a notable feeling of change — both in the air and on the ground. There’s a sense of uneasiness and restlessness.

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This article was published 20/02/2017 (2219 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

EMERSON — It is an unusually warm mid-February night in a sleepy border town that is anything but these days. There is a notable feeling of change — both in the air and on the ground. There’s a sense of uneasiness and restlessness.

A southerly wind kicks up as the temperature hovers just above the freezing mark. The normally crunchy white snow has been turned into a soft, slushy mess. A bright half-moon begins to rise over the tree line and into the clear, starry sky, illuminating a huge field that spans the Canadian and American border.

In the wee hours of Saturday, just after 2:30 a.m., two RCMP cruisers pull up on Highway 200. One of the officers leaves the vehicle, stands on the otherwise empty road and pulls out night-vision binoculars. He trains them due south.

After a few moments, the Mountie returns to his car and drives away with his colleagues.

It may be clear now, but everyone knows what is coming. The question is when? And how many?

• • •

“We’re bracing for the busiest weekend yet,” Emerson-Franklin Reeve Greg Janzen told the Free Press Friday. “Maybe 40 or 50 this time,” he predicted.

Janzen isn’t talking about requests for interviews, although a similar number may apply. He figures he’s spoken with a few dozen reporters in the past few days, from all over North America. Many are now in his community — from as far away as Los Angeles on this weekend — to document what has become an international story.

Migrants are fleeing the U.S. in droves, heading to Canada to escape U.S. President Donald Trump’s travel ban. His Jan. 27 executive order temporarily banned all people from seven majority-Muslim countries and nearly all refugees from entering the U.S. It was put on hold by the courts over its constitutionality. In response, the administration is working on a new version which is expected to be unveiled this week.

More than 100 asylum seekers have illegally crossed into Canada near Emerson since the beginning of the year. Most are from Somalia, one of the countries listed in the ban, and they fear they will be deported from the U.S. RCMP officers take them to Canada Border Services Agency officials, who begin the lengthy refugee claim process.

When too many arrive at once, the local curling club is pressed into duty to handle the overflow. That occurred last weekend when 22 people arrived within a short period. They usually spend as much as eight hours dealing with their initial CBSA claim before being allowed to continue to Winnipeg while their cases are processed.

Typically, the claimants are being driven up to the border on the U.S. side — often from Minneapolis, which has a huge Somalia community — and dropped off with instructions on how to make it on foot into Canada. The journey, although just a few kilometres, can be treacherous. Several people have experienced severe frostbite as a result of the harsh winter conditions.

Wayne Pfiel has seen it first-hand. As the bartender at the Emerson Hotel, he’s typically one of the few community residents who is usually awake when the asylum seekers start arriving under the cover of darkness.

A few weeks ago, four Somali men and a woman wandered into his bar to get out of the cold.

“Are we in Canada?” a member of the frigid five asked him.

“Oh yeah, you are,” Pfiel replied with a chuckle.

Relieved by his answer, the group asked him to call immigration. Pfiel said he was happy to do his part and would never think twice about lending a helping hand.

“Some people (in town) are upset about it, but I just do my part. I don’t need them to freeze outside,” he says.

On this unseasonably warm Friday night, Pfiel stands outside the hotel and looks towards the border. “Its probably gonna keep going for a while. When it warms up, they’ll probably be coming by the busload,” he says.

Over at the Maple Leaf Motel, they can track how busy a night it’s been by the load of laundry brought over by border officials. Asylum seekers are typically given blankets by border guards at first contact. They are taken to the local motel to get cleaned up.

On Friday morning, seven used blankets arrived. Management is expecting a lot more in the coming days.

• • •

An eerie quiet has come over the town.

The silence is occasionally broken by a vehicle in the distance, the headlights bobbing up and down. It’s too early for locals to be stirring. After a while, you come to recognize one of the handful of media outlets who are camped out here. They are simply changing positions, looking for another vantage point.

Police continue to make appearances a couple of times an hour, stopping on the highway for a quick glance before moving on.

This is a lot like fishing in the dark: you pick a spot, kill your engine and wait.

At one point, movement is spotted ahead in a clearing in the bush, where locals say many of the people have been emerging from. Could this be another group?

What appears to be several sets of legs emerge. Then a head pops up. And another. And another.

False alarm. It is a herd of deer that’s coming out from the trees.

A train horn blasts in the distance, followed by several more. It’s an important move, considering how many asylum seekers have been following the tracks as they make their way north. The risk is that someone strays too close to the rail line and doesn’t get out of the way in time.

Around 4:30 a.m., there’s high-pitched noises from the fields. A large number of deer in the area come to a stop, their ears perk up.

But these are not travellers in the distance. They are coyotes.

By 6:30, the sky is growing brighter in the east, ahead of the 7:30 a.m. sunrise. You can now see a good distance into the field facing south. It remains empty.

Lights begin to go on in homes in town. Several cars emerge as locals head out to work. Some early-risers hit the streets for a walk.

On this night, it is media and wildlife that have taken over Emerson.


During the long weekend, more than 30 migrants crossed the border into Emerson. Eight arrived early Friday and another 22 came early Sunday. They included a pregnant woman who slipped on ice around 6 a.m. Sunday, requiring the help of paramedics. Another handful of migrants arrived early Monday. The number is just shy of the 40 to 50 the reeve had predicted before the weekend.

While waiting to have their cases heard, the claimants are usually housed in Winnipeg. Most have contact with Welcome Place, a non-profit group that provides social assistance to refugees. The Salvation Army has also jumped in to provide emergency shelter in the city.

Municipal officials are continuing to discuss the issue. They want provincial and federal officials to give them advice on how to handle the issue. Janzen plans to speak with first responders from the volunteer fire department about how the community will respond and get information out as larger groups of people continue to cross on the weekends.

“That’s been the routine here in the last three weeks. There are bigger groups coming on the weekends. We’ve always had them coming on the weekends, but never this size of groups,” Janzen said.

The community of about 700 is struggling with limited resources and emergency services. Janzen wants the federal government to make changes to its refugee claims process so people wouldn’t feel the need to cross the border illegally in the middle of the night.

On Sunday, two Conservative MPs called on the Liberal government to take action. Michelle Rempel and Tony Clement say the illegal crossings are dangerous and put too big a burden on local law enforcement.

“The government must respond to this situation in a way that keeps Canadians safe and sends a strong message to those considering an illegal crossing that there are proper channels to do this,” Rempel wrote on Twitter.

“Illegal crossings are unsafe and a burden on local communities. Our laws should be enforced,” added Clement, who is the public safety critic for the opposition Conservatives.

Officials say those crossing the border illegally are avoiding the Canada-U.S. Safe Third Country Agreement, which prevents most who have been living in the U.S. from making a refugee claim at an official border crossing on the grounds they are already in a safe country.

Some legal experts say the best way to halt the process is to suspend the agreement and allow people to request refugee status at official border crossings.

Janzen said he supports that because migrants wouldn’t be forced to put their lives at risk. Desperation is mounting on the American side. And winter isn’t over yet in Manitoba, with colder temperatures predicted by this coming weekend.

“We’re welcoming refugees into Canada. Let’s do it in an orderly fashion: let them walk up to the border and claim refugee status. Why do they have to break the law, walk through the middle of our town in the middle of the night? That’s what the residents are saying, like ‘we’re getting fed up with this,’” Janzen said.

“I’m the reeve of Emerson-Franklin. I don’t run the country of Canada, but I’m thinking there’s got to be a way to do this in an orderly manner.”


Mike McIntyre

Mike McIntyre
Sports columnist

Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.


Updated on Monday, February 20, 2017 5:19 PM CST: edited, updated

Updated on Monday, February 20, 2017 5:22 PM CST: adjusted headline

Updated on Monday, February 20, 2017 5:27 PM CST: fixed headlines for web

Updated on Monday, February 20, 2017 9:32 PM CST: Fixed photo cutlines

Updated on Monday, February 20, 2017 9:35 PM CST: Fixed name of Emerson Hotel

Updated on Monday, February 20, 2017 10:37 PM CST: fixed name of hotel to inn

Updated on Tuesday, February 21, 2017 2:41 PM CST: Corrects reference to municipal officials meeting: no specific meeting is planned; discussions are ongoing.

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