EMERSON — Footprints near a home close to this town drew the attention of the RCMP last week.
"(An officer) said, ‘We saw some tracks going south the border,’" said the man, who lives about three kilometres north of the border and asked not to be identified. "We just assumed it was people crossing the border."
Border crossings were a frequent occurrence around Emerson after Donald Trump’s presidential election victory in the fall of 2016. But it was one-way traffic — heading north — for the steady stream of asylum-seekers who feared arrest and deportation in a threatened crackdown on illegal immigrants under the new U.S. administration.
The flood of thwarted crossings eventually slowed to a trickle; reported attempts have been few and far between of late.
But that changed tragically Thursday.
“I feel totally sick. It’s very cold. It’s out in the wide open, there’s no shelter.” — Rose Caners
U.S. authorities charged a Florida man with human smuggling after a family of four — including a teenager and a baby — were found frozen to death in a snow-covered field near the Canada-U.S. border, about 10 kilometres east of Emerson. The victims were among a group of 11 people from India who were attempting to cross the border into the U.S., as temperatures dipped to -35 C in whiteout conditions. Seven made it across and were apprehended by American law enforcement.
The area is made up of mostly wide-open fields, which are unforgiving in the winter when the wind is howling, as it was Thursday.
Many gravel roads were snowed in or mostly covered, and snow blown by strong winds was drifting across them.
In bad weather, visibility can be close to zero.
The resident who lives near Emerson couldn’t see his shed when heavy snow was whipped around by fierce wind gusts Tuesday.
"It’s what we call the flats out here," he said.
“I couldn’t imagine going through that with an infant. It’s just devastating. We saw police all over town (on Wednesday) and we wondered what they were doing.” — J. Jacques
Others in and around the border town were horrified to learn of the tragedy.
"I’m shocked and sad for the people," said George Andrawess, who co-owns a pharmacy in the community.
"I feel totally sick," said Rose Caners. "It’s very cold. It’s out in the wide open, there’s no shelter."
J. Jacques, whose mother owns the Emerson Inn, said refugees who cross into Manitoba from North Dakota occasionally turn up at the hotel looking for help.
The last time that happened was August 2021.
"They come here and ask us to call 911," said Jacques. "The RCMP come and take them (away)."
Last November, two bags of clothes were found stashed outside the hotel, which has temporarily closed its doors due to the latest wave of COVID-19.
Jacques assumed the bags were linked to a crossing attempt.
She said her heart broke Thursday when she heard about the four deaths.
"I couldn’t imagine going through that with an infant," she said. "It’s just devastating. We saw police all over town (on Wednesday) and we wondered what they were doing."
Dave Carlson, reeve for the Municipality of Emerson-Franklin, said regular briefings from federal officials during the wave of northbound crossing attempts wrapped up around the time COVID-19 hit in early 2020, because there were so few attempts and, therefore, far less strain on local emergency services.
"It’s very, very surprising, considering the political climate on the U.S. side of the border, and our political climate with regards to immigration," Carlson said about Thursday’s RCMP announcement, adding he’s "heard rumblings" about people who walk into the U.S. over the years, but never understood why anyone would need to.
"I’m very surprised that anyone would be that desperate to want to cross the border and risk their lives at this time of year. I’m sure everyone in our community’s trying to understand why people would take their lives into their hands with the weather so bad. It’s shocking, really."
Crossings from Canada into the United States are rare, said assistant Commissioner Jane MacLatchy, commander of the RCMP in Manitoba. It has been, historically, far more common for traffic to head the other way, she said.
There were just 19 logged cases of people crossing into Manitoba on foot between January and November 2021, the most recent month that data was available, down from 28 in all of 2020, and 180 in 2019.
Crossings into Manitoba peaked in March 2017 when 170 people were detected, the most in a single month.
On Dec. 24, 2016, Seidu Mohammad nearly froze to death walking from North Dakota toward the Canadian border at Emerson, seeking refugee status in Canada because of his sexual orientation, which was later granted.
The man from Ghana spent more than seven hours walking outside. His fingers were frostbitten — he later lost all of them.
— with files from Dylan Robertson