By Brittany Hobson and Hina Alam, The Canadian Press
A family of four Indian nationals was only in Canada for a week before their bodies were found frozen in Manitoba near the Canada-U. S. border, RCMP said Thursday as new details emerged about the deaths believed to be linked to a human smuggling operation.
The High Commission of India in Ottawa and RCMP released the identities of the four who died. They were Jagdish Baldevbhai Patel, a 39-year-old man; Vaishaliben Jagdishkumar Patel, a 37-year-old woman; and their children Vihangi Jagdishkumar Patel, an 11-year-old girl; and Dharmik Jagdishkumar Patel, a three-year-old boy.
Investigators believe the family was attempting to cross into the United States by foot around Jan. 19 during severe winter weather and died from exposure.
Police provided some details into the family’s journey from Gujarat, a state in western India.
The family arrived in Toronto on Jan. 12 and that was their first point of entry, said RCMP Chief Supt. Rob Hill.
Hill said the family made its way to Manitoba but he couldn’t confirm the date of arrival. Police believe the Patels were dropped off near the border near Emerson.
“This is an extended period of time for a family who is unfamiliar with Canada to be travelling across the country. A part of the investigation is determining whether this travel was facilitated in some way by an individual or individuals,” Hill said.
RCMP are asking anyone with information related to the family’s time in Canada to come forward. That could include people who may have interacted with the Patels at restaurants, gas stations or hotels.
“Think about what they went through and step forward,” said Hill.
Police originally said one of the victims was a male teen. RCMP, apologizing for the error, said the frozen bodies and the family’s clothing made identification difficult.
Mounties continue to work with authorities at the national and international level. They said no one was in custody on the Canadian side.
The family was from Dingucha, a village in Gujarat, said Amritbhai Vakil, a relative. Vakil, who lives in the U.S., described the village as quiet with almost every home having a family living in the U.S., United Kingdom, Australia or Canada.
Vakil said family in India were aware the Patels had travelled to Canada, but lost touch with them days after they landed.
The father came from a well-to-do middle-class family, he said. Patel helped his father farm and worked in a school and as a salesman, Vakil said.
“I don’t know what they wanted to do in the U.S.”
The High Commission of India said in a release that the family’s immediate relatives had been informed.
RCMP found the bodies after U.S. border patrol agents advised police that they had picked up a group of Indian nationals on the U.S. side.
Two people were found in a van in the U.S. with a man who now faces human smuggling charges. A group of five were picked up by border patrol officers a short distance away.
Steve Shand of Deltona, Fla., faces counts of transporting or attempting to transport illegal aliens. He was released from custody on Monday.
Court documents state one of the individuals told officers his group had been walking for 11 hours through the bitter cold. The man 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 documents say.
The U.S. Border Patrol said the seven people who did cross have been released while they are being processed for deportation.
The High Commission of India said there are ongoing conversations with Canada about issues related to migration and the welfare of citizens residing in either country.
“On longer-term issues that this tragedy has brought into focus, (there’s) the need to ensure that migration and mobility are made safe and legal and that such tragedies do not recur.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 27, 2022.
— With files from Kelly Malone in Winnipeg
This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.