By Holly Honderich & Roxy Gagdekar BBC News, Manitoba & Gujarat
The night Vaishaliben Patel, her husband Jagdish and their two children set out for the US-Canadian border they dressed in new heavy winter coats and snow boots. Temperatures where they walked, in Emerson, Manitoba, had dropped more than 35 degrees below freezing.
The young family had probably never experienced temperatures that low before. Even on its coldest day, the Patels’ home village in western India would not have reached within 10 degrees of freezing.
As they walked – maybe for a couple of hours, maybe for more – sharp winds carried snow and shards of ice across the plains, reducing visibility to nothing.
Canadian police found the four of them – Vaishaliben, 37, Jagdish, 39, their daughter, Vihangi, 11 and son, Dharmik, 3 – lying together, frozen, in an empty field on 19 January. They had died 12 metres from the US border.
The mysterious case of a young family that made its way from an unassuming village in Gujarat, India, to the bitter reaches of Manitoba, half a world away, has shocked Canadians and Indians alike, exposing the intense pressures and economic anxieties that may have led to tragedy.
Officials have said they believe the family’s deaths to be a case of human smuggling, and authorities in the US and Canada are still trying to determine how the Patels reached Emerson and who may have led them there, ultimately to their deaths.
The village of Dingucha in western India is about as far as you can get – in distance and in feeling – from icy Manitoba.
Some 12,000km away from Emerson, the town is home to about 3,500 residents, mostly middle-class agricultural workers and labourers in the province of Gujarat.
There, the Patels lived in a neat two-storey home with a rooftop balcony and a large welcome sign painted over the door. Their home sits snug among a line of row houses – concrete buildings painted yellow, pink and white.
Some residents apparently knew of the Patels’ plans to travel, telling the BBC’s Gujarati service that they went to Canada on visitor’s visas. Relatives grew concerned when messages from the family stopped coming, about a week after they had left, they said.
On or about 12 January, the Patel’s arrived in Canada on a flight to Toronto before traveling 2,000km (1,200 miles) west to Manitoba.
Police have not determined how they got to Emerson – by land or sky – though there is no record of them boarding a domestic flight.
The drive would have been long – 22 hours on the Trans-Canada Highway.
They would have snaked along the Canada-US border, weaving past the frozen lakes of southern Ontario before reaching the flat expanse of the prairies, where wind carries snow through the air like smoke.
By 18 January they arrived in Emerson, adding four to its population of 700.
The town has one pharmacy, one grocery store, one school. The houses are modest single-storey homes with single-car garages and large yards. Residents call it a retirement town – a pleasant place to live, with not much to do.
If the Patels had stayed at one of Emerson’s two borderside motels, they would have looked straight out at the US – North Dakota to the right, Minnesota to the left. From here, at Manitoba’s southern edge, it can be hard to distinguish the white plane of frozen fields from the snowy sky.
Standing outside in Emerson’s winter is almost unbearable, despite layers of fleece, down and wool. The air burns the lungs with every breath even when it is 15 degrees warmer than the day the Patels attempted to walk across the border.
The cold feels “like a dog biting your hand and not letting go”, said George Andrawess, who runs Emerson’s lone pharmacy, five minute’s walk from the border.
“Your tears will freeze in your eyes,” he said.
In one photograph of the Patels, now circulating widely, the family looks happy, all four of them smiling straight down the camera’s lens, as if for a holiday greeting card. Dharmik, the toddler, matches his father in a black and white floral vest. Vihangi, 11, wears the same red lipstick as her mother.
Both Jagdish and Vaishaliben were educated, local media said, at one point working as teachers. Like many other Gujaratis, the Patels had a second home nearby, in the nearest middle-class town, Kalol. Residents told the BBC’s Gujarati service that Jagdish, the father, had helped his brother in the garment business.
Their parents were often nearby, also dividing their time between Kalol and Dingucha.
Yet despite the appearances of a well-anchored life in India, something compelled the Patels to leave.
In Dingucha, this is common, residents told the BBC.
“Every child here grows with the dream of moving to a foreign country,” a Dingucha councilman said.
Many locals spoke of an intense and pervasive social pressure to move abroad, with social status determined by connections in foreign countries. Those who stay are seen as incapable of raising the funds to leave, everyone else moves on, some said.
“There are instances, where boys of marriage age cannot find a suitable girl, because they don’t have any close relatives in any foreign country,” one person said.
And there were perhaps idealised views of life abroad. “There are many people earlier as well who had gone to US without proper documentation, and many of them are doing well,” said another.
In Winnipeg, Indo-Canadians said they knew well the “craze” for moving abroad among middle and upper-middle class Indians.
“People think there are dollar trees here,” said Mitesh Trivedi, a Gujarati-Canadian. “I had that in my mind when I came, I was 26 years old.”
Mr Trivedi, now 59, settled in Canada three decades ago on a marriage visa and became a citizen in 2000. In many ways, his is the life that Indian economic migrants aspire to abroad: He owns a profitable restaurant, has raised a family, and his two daughters both hold graduate degrees in the medical field.
Though he was highly educated in India – Mr Trivedi is an engineer by training – upward mobility would have been limited there. “I was born lower-middle class. If I had stayed, I would have died lower-middle class,” he said.
According to Mr Trivedi and other Gujaratis, the desperation to emigrate has spawned an underground industry of “irregular migration”, referring to US-Canadian border crossings between official ports of entry.
He and other expats in Winnipeg described clandestine travel networks, plans whispered between contacts in India, Canada and the US, that facilitate these crossings, with relatives or friends who were smuggled successfully becoming “references” for particular smugglers.
“It’s word of mouth,” Mr Trivedi said. “Nothing on paper.”
He has heard of people who have done it, he said. Crossing on foot or hiding in trunks of cars “is not new”.
These networks can foster safe havens abroad, with documented Indian migrants providing a place to stay or off-the-books employment for the newly arrived.
According to Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Board, the country is experiencing an influx of irregular migration.
Most of these crossings are northbound – with migrants trying to cross into Canada from the US.
Last year, about 4,000 people were found trying to enter Canada this way, compared to 900 crossing into the US, said Western University’s Professor Victoria Esses, who studies immigration policy. Before Covid-19 travel restrictions, both numbers would likely be higher, she said.
Emerson itself, with its wide stretch of unguarded border, is considered a hotspot for illegal crossings. US Border Patrol recently named this area as a high incident spot for human smuggling.
In 2017, two migrants from Ghana were badly injured by frostbite, each losing several fingers, when they tried to make the trek into Canada from the US. At the time, Emerson locals told the BBC they were afraid someone would die trying to make it across.
It’s unclear why Canada was not the Patels’ final destination, but Gujaratis in both India and Canada say residents of Dingucha have a particular fixation with the US.
Most of those who spoke to the BBC were familiar with the US immigration process, rattling off descriptions of different types of visas and which lead to citizenship.
Or perhaps they simply had family there.
A few days after their deaths, an online fundraiser for the family’s funeral costs was set up by Dilip Patel, a doctor in Chicago, though it is uncertain if he was a relative. He did not respond to requests for comment.
Police on both sides of the border have said that the Patels’ case is probably linked to human smuggling.
The only named suspect so far is 47-year-old Steve Shand, a US citizen from Florida, arrested last month. Mr Shand is suspected of playing a part in a “larger human smuggling operation”, connected to the deaths of the Patels, the US Homeland Security department has said.
On 19 January, the same day the Patels were found, Mr Shand was arrested in Pembina, North Dakota, less than 8km from Emerson. He was driving a 15-seat van with two Indian nationals as passengers, and cases of food and water in his boot.
Five additional Indian nationals were found that day, 400 metres south of the Canadian border, walking towards the location of Mr Shand’s arrest. They told authorities they had been walking for more than 11 hours.
The Indian nationals arrived illegally in the US, authorities said. All seven spoke Gujarati – the language of the Patels’ home state – and all seven wore newly purchased matching winter clothing, similar to the Patels’. One man carried a backpack that did not belong to him, containing children’s clothes, a nappy and toys.
The group told authorities that a family of four had been left behind.
One of the Indian nationals caught with Mr Shand told authorities he paid a “significant” amount of money to enter Canada under a falsified student visa. After crossing into the US on foot, he had expected to be driven to his uncle’s home in Chicago.
But for the Patels, the central questions are left unanswered: what was waiting for them across the plains, was it worth the risk, or did they even know the risk they were taking?
Among the many painful details of the case, Canadians have been left bewildered as to why the Patels pushed forward, despite the frigid and dangerous conditions.
“Who told them to do this?” asked Hemant Shah, an Indian expat and community leader in Winnipeg. “Any Gujarati or Indo-Canadian would have told them not to go. It was minus 35, you cannot survive that.”
Perhaps the journey seemed simple – a straight shot across an invisible, unimpeded border – but on the night of their crossing, that path was blurred by snow, and the long stretch of the prairies would have offered little in the form of navigation.
They didn’t even make it to the border. In their final moments, they may not have known where they were at all.
Photographs and reporting by Shrai Popat
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