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Bodies of family that froze to death trying to cross border may not return to India

A relative of a family that froze to death in southern Manitoba while trying to cross the United States border says it's expected the bodies will not be flown home to India for a funeral.

A relative of a family that froze to death in southern Manitoba while trying to cross the United States border says it's expected the bodies will not be flown home to India for a funeral.

Amritbhai Vakil said family members have decided it would be emotionally difficult to see the couple and their two children and too expensive to transport the bodies.

"Can you imagine what will happen to the parents when they see four bodies all at once?" he said.

They hope there might be a funeral in Canada, Vakil added.

RCMP and diplomatic officials Thursday released the names of the dead: Jagdish Patel, 39; his wife Vaishaliben Patel, 37; their 11-year-old daughter, Vihangi Patel; and their three-year-old son, Dharmik Patel.

The family, from the Dingucha village in India's western state of Gujarat, had travelled to Toronto on Jan. 12, Mounties said. Their frozen bodies were found in the snow, just metres from the border, seven days later.

A man on the U.S. side was arrested and charged with human smuggling. U.S. officials allege he is part of an organized human-smuggling enterprise.

U.S. court documents allege Steve Shand of Deltona, Fla., was driving a van with two Indian nationals just south of the border on Jan. 19.

The documents say five others from India were soon after spotted in the snow walking in the direction of the van. They told border officers that they had been walking for more than 11 hours in the freezing cold and that four others had become separated from the group overnight.

One man in the group also said he had paid a large amount of money to get a fake student visa in Canada and was expecting a ride to a relative's home in Chicago after he crossed the border, the documents say.

A statement from India's Ministry of External Affairs said the High Commission in Ottawa and Consulate General in Toronto are working closely with Canadian authorities.

Anil Pratham, director general of police in Gujarat, said he is waiting on information and guidance from External Affairs to move ahead with his investigation. Pratham said he believes the Patels used a local travel agent to get visas to Canada.

Vakil, in a phone interview from Dingucha, said family in India had wondered for several days if the bodies found in Canada were their relatives. Family knew the four had travelled to Canada, he said, but no one had been able to reach them.

The family is going through complex emotions, he said.

"They knew in their heart of hearts that it was their kids, but they didn't want to believe it," Vakil said.

"They had some hope, but knew it was false hope. It's also shocking and sad when what you fear most comes true."

The week that it took for authorities to identify the Patels helped cushion the blow, he added. "It's given time to process our thoughts and emotions."

He said the family is holding a 15-day mourning and prayer service in the village.

A separate service was to take place Friday night in Winnipeg. The president of the India Association of Manitoba said it worked with local organizations to put together an hour-long virtual one for community members. The group had worked with consulate officials from Toronto to help identify the Patels.

Ramandeep Grewal said the wish was to give community members a way to deal with their grief. With COVID-19 restrictions still in place, the groups decided to hold something online.

Since news of the deaths, people have been reaching out to share their own stories of immigrating to the U.S. or Canada, Grewal said.

"I think it's very important everybody get together and talk about it. It's a little bit soothing for everyone,” he said.

“Otherwise people are just thinking about it ... (and) what went wrong."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 28, 2022.


This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship

Hina Alam and Brittany Hobson, The Canadian Press