Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said that his government was doing all it can and working “very closely” with the US to stop human smuggling, a day after a family of four Indians, including a baby, died from exposure to extreme cold weather on the Canadian side of the border with America.
Terming the incident as a "mind blowing" tragedy, Trudeau on Friday said that the Canadian government is doing all it can to stop people-smuggling across the US border.
“It was an absolutely mind-blowing story. It’s so tragic to see a family die like that, victims of human traffickers… and of people who took advantage of their desire to build a better life,” Trudeau told a news conference.
“This is why we are doing all we can to discourage people from crossing the border in an irregular or illicit manner. We know there are great risks in doing so,” he said.
The prime minister said that Canada was working very closely with the United States to stop smuggling and help people “taking unacceptable risks”.
According to Canadian officials, the incident was unusual as illegal migrants generally try to cross into Canada from America, rather than the other way round. Border crossings into Canada on foot increased in 2016 following the election of Donald Trump as the president of the United States.
On Thursday, the Manitoba Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) said that the bodies of four people — two adults, a teen and an infant — were found on the Canadian side of the US/Canada border near the Emerson locality in south central Manitoba on Wednesday.
The family, believed to be Gujaratis, died from the exposure to extreme cold weather.
Confirming the nationality of the deceased, India's High Commissioner to Canada Ajay Bisaria described the incident as a grave tragedy.
"This is a grave tragedy. An Indian consular team is travelling today from @IndiainToronto to Manitoba to coordinate and help. We will work with Canadian authorities to investigate these disturbing events," Bisaria tweeted.
According to the criminal complaint filed in a court in the US state of Minnesota, all the foreign nationals found on the US side, part of the larger group, spoke in Gujarati.
Manitoba RCMP was notified by US Customs and Border Protection on Wednesday morning that a group of people had crossed into the US near Emerson, and that one of the adults was carrying items intended for a baby, but there was no infant with the group.
An immediate search began on both sides of the border, and by that afternoon, the bodies of an adult man, an adult woman, and an infant were found. The body of a boy believed to be in his mid-teens was found shortly afterwards.
The US Attorney’s Office for the District of Minnesota said in a press release that 47-year-old Steve Shand of Florida has been arrested.
A criminal complaint has been filed on Thursday in the US District Court for the District of Minnesota against Shand, who has been charged with human smuggling.
Shand, a "suspected smuggler of undocumented foreign nationals”, was arrested near the US/Canadian border on January 19 for transporting two Indian nationals, who were illegally present in the US. The two Indian nationals have been identified as ‘SP’ and ‘YP’ in the complaint.
The complaint said that five Indian nationals “illegally present in the United States were also identified and arrested” around the time of Shand’s arrest.
Inside the vehicle, US officers found cases of plastic cups, bottled water, bottled juice and snacks in the van. As the officers were taking the trio back to the border patrol station in North Dakota, they came across another group of five Indian nationals walking.
They said they had walked across the border and had expected to be picked up by someone. The group said they estimated they had been walking for more than 11 hours.
One person in the group had a backpack he told officials he was carrying for a family of four they had become separated from that contained children’s items such as clothes, a diaper and a toy.
The bodies found on the Canadian side of the border have been tentatively identified as that family of four, the release from the US Attorney’s Office said.
Soon after the discovery of the four bodies on the Canadian side of the border, RCMP Assistant Commissioner Jane MacLatchy called it "an absolute and heartbreaking tragedy".
"At this very early stage of the investigation, it appears that they all died due to exposure to the cold weather," MacLatchy said, adding that the RCMP believe the four people are connected to the group that was apprehended on the US side of the border.
She said all four were located within 9-12 metres of the border.
MacLatchy said that the group was "on their own in the middle of a blizzard" and "faced not only the cold weather but endless fields, large snowdrifts and complete darkness".
Canadian police said the conditions where the four bodies were extreme and the temperature was 35 below zero degrees with a wind chill.
MacLatchy said work is underway to identify the victims, but at this stage, it appears they all died from exposure to the cold.
The RCMP said it is working with US Customs and Border Protection and the US Department of Homeland Security.
In a statement, the Canada Border Services Agency said it is also working with law enforcement partners, as well as its American counterparts, on the investigation.
The office of the Minister of Public Safety said in a statement: “We are shocked and saddened by the tragic deaths of four people attempting to cross the Canada-US border, near Emerson, Manitoba. We extend our most heartfelt condolences to their loved ones, and our thoughts are with them at this difficult time.”