Anxious families in India are waiting to find out if their loved ones are among 11 migrants who made an ill-fated bid to walk across the Canada-U.S. border near Emerson.
People who may be relatives have come forward after the frozen bodies of a family of four, including an infant and teenage boy, were found in a snow-covered field just north of the border last Wednesday.
As Manitoba RCMP continue trying to unravel the mystery, a team from India’s Toronto consulate is in Winnipeg to help to identify the victims and notify their relatives.
"(Consular officials) said they have some people who contacted the Ministry of External Affairs in India," said India Association of Manitoba president Ramandeep Grewal, who has been assisting the team. "They have some information and are checking to see if it is a match (to the family)."
The association has been unable to find out if anyone in Manitoba knew the family, said Grewal.
Over the weekend, news agencies in India began reporting possible names of the four victims. Some websites published a photo of a family.
Responding to those reports, the RCMP said it is still working to positively identify the bodies.
"Our investigators are working closely with the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner of Manitoba and pursuing other investigative avenues to confirm the names," an RCMP press release stated. "We are also in regular contact with Indian consular officials who have arrived in Manitoba. Once the identities have been confirmed, our priority will be to formally notify the next of kin.
“(Consular officials) said they have some people who contacted the Ministry of External Affairs in India. They have some information and are checking to see if it is a match (to the family).” — Ramandeep Grewal
"We are aware that some media outlets are publishing the possible identities of the four victims. As a law enforcement organization, we will not be in a position to confirm these names until we have 100 per cent certainty of their identities and next of kin notification is completed."
Chellappan Gurusubramanian, first secretary of the High Commission of India in Ottawa, was "distressed" by the deaths.
"Confirmation of identities will only be possible after investigations are completed this week," the diplomat wrote in an email.
RCMP officers found the bodies steps north of the border about 10 kilometres east of Emerson after U.S. border patrol agents arrested seven undocumented Indian nationals and alleged human smuggler Steve Shand just south of the boundary in Minnesota.
One of the migrants told agents they had been walking for more than 11 hours in deep snow and a -35C blizzard after being dropped off on the Canadian side during the night.
The survivors speak Gujarati, a language native to India’s western state of Gujarat, and very little to no English at all, according to an affidavit prepared by a U.S. Homeland Security special agent.
As investigations were carried out on both sides of the border, U.S. District Court Magistrate Judge Hildy Bowbeer agreed to release Shand, 47, from custody while he awaits trial.
The Deltona, Fla., native is charged with transporting or attempting to transport illegal aliens.
He waived his right to a preliminary hearing as he appeared at a virtual detention hearing before the Minneapolis-St. Paul judge.
The naturalized U.S. citizen, who was born in Jamaica, must surrender his travel documents, remain in his Florida district except for travel to court, and have no contact with any victims or witnesses, among other conditions of his release.
Shand, who is being held at the Grand Forks County Correctional Centre, was wearing an orange prison suit and a black face mask during the hearing. He told the judge he understood the conditions, which were agreed upon by his defence lawyers and U.S. District Attorney Laura Provinzino.
He said, "Yes, ma’am," and spoke very little during the hearing, which lasted about 20 minutes.
Shand was to remain in custody until documentation was completed and transportation to his home in Florida had been arranged.
"They must have been so desperate to come into the U.S. in these winter conditions. These people probably didn’t know they were going to have to face these harsh conditions for a better life. It’s not humane to take advantage of people’s desperation." — Hitesh Patel
U.S. authorities allege he was supposed to pick up the migrants in a rental van once they crossed into Minnesota from Manitoba. Homeland Security suspects it was part of a wider human-smuggling operation.
Two migrants were inside the van when it was pulled over near St. Vincent, Minn., Wednesday morning, and five others were discovered walking nearby.
One of the Indian nationals, who was carrying items for an infant, told border patrol agents the family of four became separated as the group walked together towards the border during the night. That precipitated the search that ended tragically on the Canadian side several hours later.
Another migrant said he travelled from India to Canada on a fraudulent student visa. He was trying to reach family in Chicago, the affidavit stated.
A border-security expert said the perilous crossing could have been a byproduct of heightened security and a crush of migrants, mostly from Latin America, on the U.S.-Mexico boundary.
"It’s usually done at the southern border. The path of least resistance is going to be the northern border," said Keith Cozine, an assistant professor of homeland security at St. John’s University in New York.
Hitesh Patel, a spokesman for the Gujarati Samaj of Minnesota cultural organization, has heard of Gujarati people trying to cross into the U.S. from Mexico, but never via Canada.
"They must have been so desperate to come into the U.S. in these winter conditions," he said. "These people probably didn’t know they were going to have to face these harsh conditions for a better life. It’s not humane to take advantage of people’s desperation."