Manitoba’s Gujarati community is ready to help relatives of a family of four, including a baby, who died trying to walk across the border into the U.S. in a -35C blizzard.
Community leaders are devastated and baffled by the tragedy, saying they don’t know anything about the victims or seven people who survived the harrowing journey.
All 11 are Indian nationals. The undocumented survivors speak Gujarati, a language native to the western state of Gujarat, according to an affidavit filed in a U.S. court.
"We don’t know who they are. Nobody knows them," said Kirit Thakrar, a Winnipeg accountant who moved from Gujarat about 40 years ago. "Everybody is very sad and upset about this. Once we find out (who the family is), we’ll be there to help. Whatever (their relatives) need, we’ll be standing beside them."
Hindu worshippers in Manitoba prayed for the victims during a virtual service Sunday.
Most of Manitoba’s Gujarati population, estimated to be 10,000, lives in Winnipeg, said Thakrar, president of the Hindu Society of Manitoba.
"It’s a very tight-knit community. If anybody is desperate, they call us and everybody goes to help," he said.
Sanjay Patel, president of the Gujarati Cultural Society of Manitoba, said the community was waiting to find out more information about the family.
"We don’t know anything yet," he said.
The RCMP said it would take days to confirm the identities of the man, woman, infant and a boy believed to be in his mid-teens.
Their frozen bodies were found in a snow-covered field about 10 kilometres east of Emerson, just metres from the border, Wednesday afternoon.
Autopsies were scheduled to confirm the cause of deaths.
The migrants were dropped off about one kilometre north of the border the night before in what is believed to be a wider human smuggling operation, the affidavit stated.
At least three other crossings have taken place in the sparsely-populated area in recent weeks.
Suffering from frostbite and hypothermia, Wednesday’s survivors were just across the boundary when U.S. border patrol agents arrested them and alleged human smuggler Steve Shand about 11 kilometres northeast of St. Vincent, Minn.
A search was launched after a survivor told agents the family became separated in darkness while the group walked for more than 11 hours through deep snow.
Six survivors were detained by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) for processing.
The seventh, a woman who stopped breathing several times, was airlifted to a St. Paul, Minn., hospital. Part of her frostbitten hand could be amputated, the affidavit stated.
A survivor told U.S. border agents he paid a "significant" amount of money to enter Canada from India under a fraudulently obtained student visa.
After crossing illegally into the U.S. on foot, he expected to meet a driver and be taken to his uncle’s home in Chicago, the affidavit stated.
According to the document, Shand was supposed to pick up the migrants on a rural road just inside Minnesota. Two were with him in a rental van when he was arrested.
Charged with human smuggling offences, the Deltona, Fla., native is due to appear by video at a detention hearing in a Minneapolis court Monday.
His lawyer, public defender Douglas Micko, declined to comment.
Shand, a naturalized U.S. citizen who was born in Jamaica, filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in August 2018 to protect him from creditors, according to a Florida court filing.
The dad, who set up a business called Shand’s Taxi in November 2017, listed his occupation as "Uber driver."
He was supporting a daughter and two sons, and his assets included a house and two vehicles.
His monthly income of more than US$2,000 came mostly from social security payments, according to the filing.
Keith Cozine, assistant professor of human smuggling at St. John’s University in New York, said U.S.-bound migrants from overseas are usually forced to pay tens of thousands of dollars to human smugglers.
Traditionally, he said, those migrants try to cross the U.S.-Mexico border.
"This case highlights the need for continued cross-border co-operation and co-ordination," he said. "If this becomes the new route, and once the weather gets nicer, that need for co-operation is going to be extremely important."
Last week’s fatal crossing incident was the first near Manitoba’s border border since May 2017, when Ghanaian citizen Mavis Otuteye, 57, died of hypothermia as she tried to walk into Canada near Noyes, Minn.
Most migrants who cross America’s northern border in winter do not understand how dangerous it is, said St. Paul immigration lawyer Ayodele Ojo.
"It is extremely cold. Nobody should be advised to make that trip," said Ojo. "Through desperation and hope, they believe they can make it."
He called for a crackdown on human smugglers.
"They are criminals," he said. "They should be put out of business."
Dave Carlson, reeve of the Rural Municipality of Emerson-Franklin, hoped the tragedy would act as a deterrent.
"I think people are still just saddened and really surprised something like this could happen," he said. "I hope this underlines the fact that it’s dangerous and shouldn’t be attempted, especially at this time of year."
As a general assignment reporter, Chris covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.