If you had driven past Roxham Road two years ago, a small street in Champlain, N.Y., and just south of the Eastern Townships in Quebec, you may not have even realized that it stops at an international border. Last year, however, it became an important site for asylum seekers in the United States hoping to take refuge in Canada. In 2017, Almost 20,000 people crossed into Canada at Roxham, making it the Canadian focal point of the growing global migrant crisis.
Last month, the National Film Board released Roxham, an immersive documentary from photographer and artist Michel Huneault about the Roxham crossing. Roxham is available online as a virtual reality experience, and it is also part of Particles of Existence at Montreal’s Phi Centre, an exhibit that showcases “immersive experiences.” For this project, Huneault spent 16 days at the Roxham crossing over six months, witnessing and documenting migrants cross the border, usually to claim refugee status in Canada.
You can experience 32 of these interactions with Roxham, which puts the viewer in Huneault’s shoes as a witness to these crossings from the Canadian side. Within an immersive environment created by Huneault, Maude Thibodeau and Chantal Dumas, viewers can explore the space of the Roxham crossing. By clicking on silhouettes of migrants within the environment, users can see Huneault’s candid photographs of asylum seekers as they cross. To accompany his photographs, Huneault has included audio recordings of their interactions with RCMP officers.
Many of these asylum seekers had taken a bus to Plattsburgh, N.Y., a half-hour drive away, before hopping in a cab to the end of Roxham Road. At this point, they are usually intercepted by RCMP officers directly across the border, who warn them that anyone who crosses a small ditch marking the international boundary will be breaking the law. Between February and July of last year, Huneault recorded 180 people from 22 different countries crossing the border, representing a wide swath of global migration trends.
“Some people start trying to justify why they come and seek asylum,” says Huneault. “Some people don’t speak the language, and they just walk through; some people start a discussion, and there’s all these different variations.”
The language and tone of the officers is of particular interest for Huneault.
“Are the officers actually indirectly inviting them to cross?” he asks in his narration of the documentary. Although the RCMP always recite the same message, in French or in English, to people who look like they might cross the border, Huneault sensed a disconnect between their language and their actions.
“They would give the warning, try to be rigid, do their job,” Huneault explains to me over the phone from Montreal, “but once they cross, usually their behaviour changes.” At this point, the officers would sometimes open up and even help asylum seekers with their children or luggage.
To protect the identities of the asylum seekers in his photographs, Huneault masks their silhouettes with photographs of blankets and textiles that Huneault took while he was covering the migrant crisis in Europe, where “the migrants would cross [borders] in highly public places, like train stations or very public border crossings next to highways.”
Locals would show their support for the migrants by offering them blankets, sleeping bags and even tents. “I thought it was very interesting that they showed their support with that visual representation of comfort and protection,” says Huneault “and because we are photographers, we like those kind of textures.”
Of the 180 attempted border crossings that Huneault witnessed at Roxham, only three people didn’t eventually cross. One woman and child were convinced to enter Canada legally because they had family in the country. (If you already have family in Canada, it may constitute an exception to the Safe Third Country Agreement, which prevents asylum seekers from entering Canada at a legal point of entry to claim refugee status if they are already in the United States.) But on his first day at Roxham Road, Huneault witnessed a pregnant woman from Nigeria get picked up by the United States Border Patrol, who whisked her away and yelled, “she’s a keeper” to the RCMP officers on the Canadian side of the border.
For Michel Huneault, who had documented the migrant crisis in Europe as a photographer and spent times in crisis zones as a humanitarian worker, the situation at Roxham was unusual because, “this time [the migrants] were coming to me, as opposed to me going to them.” This also provided a test for Canada, whose reputation for taking in refugees has been bolstered by the smiling image of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau welcoming Syrian refugees at Pearson Airport. However, the increase of asylum seekers in the past year has overwhelmed the Immigration and Refugee Board. The Liberal government has even sent ministers to immigrant communities in the U.S. to discourage these types of crossings.
People are motivated to seek refuge in Canada for a variety of reasons, including war, economic despair and, most recently, the anti-immigration rhetoric and policy of U.S. President Donald Trump. Canada shares only one land border with a wealthy superpower, and only recently has it begun to experience the kind of mass migration that has become common across the world.
“It’s the same large movement that’s affecting Europe right now,” says Huneault, “People are generally on the move, and there are very different reasons for different groups of people.”
Throughout 2017, Roxham Road became a “microcosm” of the global migrant crisis according to Huneault, and with Roxham, viewers can witness Canada opening its eyes to the issue.
Roxham can be viewed in both English and French online and at Montreal’s Phi Centre through August.