A couple, with two young children, braved the harsh Canadian winter in search of the American dream.
The family, from India, reportedly walked for 11 hours before freezing to death very close to the US-Canada border that night. temperatures dropped to -35°C.
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The bodies of Jagdish Patel, 39; Vaishailben Patel, 37, and her sons Vihangi, 11, and Dharkmik, 3, were found in an open field in Manitoba, Canada, on January 19.
Their identities were revealed by the Indian High Commission of Canada and later confirmed by the Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP).
Canadian authorities believe the family’s death is related to a human trafficking scheme.
The Patels hailed from Dingucha, a village in Gujarat’s Gandhinagar district, where neighbors who spoke to the BBC said the family was known to have traveled to Canada about 10 days ago on visitor visas.
According to a member of the village council, who did not want to be identified, some relatives contacted the Indian authorities. after five days without hearing from the Patels.
“We thought this would help, everyone here was afraid they might have been in trouble, so we decided to write to the Foreign Office,” this person told the BBC.
RCMP Superintendent Rob Hill told a news conference that the Patel family first arrived in Canada on January 12, on a flight to Toronto. From there, they headed west to the province of Manitoba, before traveling to Emerson, a border town, around January 18. Their bodies were found the following night.
No abandoned vehicles were found near the Canada-US border in Emerson, suggesting that someone drove the Patel family to a drop-off point before beginning their journey on foot.
Residents of Dingucha who spoke to the BBC said there was great cultural pressure among villagers to forge ties abroad, with many having a sophisticated understanding of travel requirements for foreign visas.
The RCMP declined to comment on whether the Patels’ case was related to a group of seven other Indian nationals who were also found by border agents on the night of January 19.
Steve Shand, a 47-year-old Florida resident, was charged with human smuggling after authorities found him driving a 15-person van across the border the same night the Patels were found. Shand had two Indian nationals as passengers and boxes of food and water in the trunk.
“There is a common sense of guilt, as if something has gone wrong,” Ramandeep Grewal, president of the Manitoba Indian Association, told the BBC.
Questions remain as to why the Patel family set out on foot in the dark, in the harsh winter weather of Canada.
“You don’t get exposed to that degree of cold for minutes, let alone hours,” Grewal said.
Such questions have consumed Indian communities in Winnipeg, said Hemant Shah, an Indian expat, who organized a virtual prayer for the Patel family this week.
“There are a lot of Patel families here, a lot of Indian Canadians,” he said. “Everyone is talking about it, coming up with their own theories.”
While dangerous border crossings have become typical of the southern border of the United States, this type of travel is less common from the north.
“I had never seen this in Canada,” Shah said. “This is unheard of.”
The RCMP has launched an “extensive” investigation into how the Patels came to Canada, in coordination with the US and India. So far it is unknown if the Patels had family in Canada or the United States.
A special team, led by a senior Indian consular official, was dispatched to Manitoba to assist Canadian authorities with the investigation. The Consulate General of India in Toronto has contacted the relatives to provide them with support.
Last week, a US Homeland Security official said they were also investigating the Patel case, along with a “larger human smuggling operation suspected of [Steve] Shand participated.”
There were three other recent human smuggling incidents in December and January at the same location where Shand was detained, according to court documents.
Mr. Grewal, from the Indian Association, said he hopes other families contemplating a similar trip can now reconsider.
“If there is someone else who is in the same boat, who is trying to cross… Don’t go, don’t listen to people who tell you they can help”.
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