By Holly Honderich & Roxy Gagdekar
BBC News, Washington
Canadian authorities believe the deaths of four Indian nationals found steps away from the Canada-US border are connected to a human smuggling scheme.
Jagdish Patel, 39, Vaishailben Patel, 37, and their children Vihangi, 11, and Dharkmik, 3, died from exposure due to the frigid cold in Manitoba, Canada.
Temperatures dropped to -35C (-31F) on the night the Patel family attempted to cross into the US on foot.
The family was found in a field just north of the border on 19 January.
Their identities were announced by Canada’s High Commission of India and later confirmed by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP).
The family hailed from Dingucha, a village in Gujarat in the district of Gandhinagar, where neighbours who spoke to the BBC said the Patels were known to have travelled to Canada about ten days ago on visitor visas.
According to a member of the village council, who did not want to be named, family members there contacted Indian authorities after the travelling Patels became unreachable five days ago.
“We thought that, this would help, as everyone here feared that they might have been in trouble and so we decided to write to the Ministry of External Affairs,” the person told BBC Gugarati.
Speaking at a news conference on Thursday, RCMP superintendent Rob Hill said the Patel family first arrived in Canada on 12 January, on a flight to Toronto. From there, they made their way west to the province of Manitoba, before travelling to Emerson – a border town – on or around 18 January. Their bodies were found the next night.
No abandoned vehicle was found near the Canada-US border in Emerson, suggesting that someone drove the Patel family to a drop-off point before they began their journey on foot.
Dingucha residents who spoke to BBC Gugarati said that there is extensive cultural pressure among villagers to forge ties abroad, and many had a sophisticated understanding of foreign visa travel requirements.
The RCMP would not comment on whether the Patels’ case was connected to a group of seven other Indian nationals also found by border agents on the evening of 19 January. Steve Shand, a 47-year-old Florida resident, has been charged with human smuggling after authorities found him driving a 15-person van along the border, on the same night the Patels were found. Mr Shand had two Indian nationals as passengers in his car, and cases of food and water in his boot.
The deaths of the Patel family have rocked the Indian community in Manitoba.
“There’s a common sense of feeling guilty, like something has gone wrong,” Ramandeep Grewal, president of the India Association of Manitoba, told the BBC.
Questions remain as to why the Patel family set out on foot in the dark, in Canada’s punishing winter weather.
Mr Grewal said he heard rumours the family walked for 11 hours. “You don’t expose yourself to that degree of cold for minutes, let alone hours,” he said.
Such questions have consumed Indian communities in Winnipeg, said Hemant Shah, an Indian ex-pat, who organised a virtual prayer for the Patel family this week.
“There are lots of Patel families here, lots of Indo-Canadians,” he said. “Everybody’s talking, making their own theories.”
While perilous border crossings have become typical to the United States’ southern border, this type of journey is less common from the north.
“I’ve never seen this in Canada,” Mr Shah said. “This is unheard of.”
The RCMP has launched an “extensive” investigation into how the Patels made their way to Canada, co-ordinating with the US and India. It is so far unknown if the Patels had family in Canada or the US.
A special team led by a senior Indian consular officer was dispatched to Manitoba to help Canadian authorities with the investigation. The Consulate General of India in Toronto has been in touch with relatives to provide support.
Last week, a US Homeland Security official said they were also investigating the Patel case, alongside a “larger human smuggling operation of which [Steve] Shand is suspected of playing a part”.
There had been three other recent incidents of human smuggling in December and January in the same location where Mr Shand was apprehended, according to court documents.
The India Association’s Mr Grewal said he hopes other families contemplating a similar journey may now reconsider.
“If there’s anybody else who’s in the same boat, who’s trying to cross… Don’t go, don’t listen to people who are telling you they can help.”