Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says four people who died in the frigid, snow-covered fields of southern Manitoba while attempting to walk across the U.S. border this week are “victims of human traffickers, of misinformation and people took advantage of their desire to build a better life.”
“That is why we are doing all we can to discourage people from trying to cross the border in irregular or illegal ways,” he said in French, speaking about the deaths at an unrelated news conference on Friday. “We know that there are great risks in doing so.”
The four victims – who have been described by RCMP in Manitoba as a man, a woman, an infant and another male believed to be a teenaged boy – have not been publicly identified, but are believed to be Indian nationals. An RCMP spokesperson said no information is expected to be released about the case until next week.
Indian High Commissioner to Canada Ajay Bisaria called the deaths a tragedy, and said on Twitter that an Indian consular team was travelling to Manitoba and would work with Canadian authorities to investigate.
Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, India’s Minister for External Affairs, tweeted that he was shocked by the deaths. “Have asked our Ambassadors in the US and Canada to urgently respond to the situation,” he wrote.
The bodies were found by RCMP about 10 kilometres east of Emerson, Man., on Wednesday afternoon. The search began after border officials in the United States encountered a group of people who’d walked over the border, and said that a family that had been travelling with them had gotten separated during the passage.
It was extremely cold at the time, with blizzard conditions and temperatures reaching -40 C with the wind chill. There is no shelter in the remote rural area.
A 47-year-old Florida man, Steve Shand, is facing one charge in the United States for allegedly transporting undocumented people. A criminal complaint filed with the courts says American authorities suspect Mr. Shand of being part of a larger human-smuggling operation at the border. Mr. Shand, who in a 2018 bankruptcy filing listed his occupation as a taxi and Uber driver, is slated to appear in court in Minnesota on Monday.
The Emerson area has been the site of significant illegal border-crossing activity in recent years, and is a particularly treacherous journey in winter.
While the cases that have become publicly known in the past have involved people walking north from the United States in search of asylum in Canada, a spokesman with United States Border Patrol said in an e-mail there have been people travelling the other way “due to a wide array of reasons” as well.
According to the document filed in Mr. Shand’s case, one of the men who walked across the border told American officials he paid a significant amount of money to come to Canada under a fraudulently obtained student visa, planning to then enter the United States illegally and travel to a relative’s home in Chicago. He said the group had walked for 11½ hours south across the border, and were expecting to be picked up on the other side.
The document says the travellers who entered the United States all spoke Gujarati, a language of western India. Two were treated for frostbite and exposure, with one woman in critical condition and requiring partial amputation of her hand.
After news of the four deaths came out on Thursday, Ramandeep Grewal, president of the Indian Association of Manitoba, began reaching out to Manitoba’s Indian population – which he estimates at about 50,000 – imploring anyone who knew the victims or could help identify them to get in touch.
Mr. Grewal said he was unaware of any Indians in Manitoba attempting that type of border crossing before, but that the exploitation of recent arrivals from his home country has been an escalating problem since 2016.
Before then, he said, his association might receive a message or two a month from someone in India interested in information about moving to Canada. Now, they average about 100 monthly queries – many from prospective students hoping to land a student visa. (India is Canada’s top source country for international students).
Some Indians, who have paid recruiters large sums of money, will receive an offer of admission to a postsecondary institution in Canada and then write to Mr. Grewal’s organization to inquire about the school.
“Sometimes when you do a Google search on one of these colleges, it looks fake,” he said. “They’re just shops and they want people to pay them money, and they give them visas or diplomas.” His organization is one of many across Canada that has called out the rampant fraud and exploitation in the industry of international student recruitment.
Three months ago, Mr. Grewal met with Kelvin Goertzen, then-interim premier of Manitoba and now Justice Minister, to discuss the overwhelming number of allegations his organization had received about Indians on student visas or work permits being underpaid by their Canadian employers or not being given the hours they were promised. Others, he said, were illegally sold work permits.
“We get lots of information about people exploiting new students and newcomers,” he said. “There’s financial exploitation, sexual exploitation.”
He was told the government planned to investigate these allegations. Mr. Goertzen’s office did not reply to a request for comment Friday.
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.