Family members of Indian migrants who died at border in Winnipeg for funeral

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Published February 8, 2022 at 2:37 pm

WINNIPEG — A small funeral was held on the weekend for an Indian couple and their two children who died while trying to cross into the United States by foot during treacherous winter conditions in southern Manitoba. 

Nearly a dozen family members from the U.S. and India travelled to Winnipeg for the two-hour ceremony at a funeral home on Sunday. 

RCMP found the frozen bodies of the migrants in the snow on Jan. 19 just metres from the Canada-U.S. border near Coutts, Man. 

Police believe the four were part of a larger human-smuggling operation. A man on the U.S. side has been charged with human smuggling. 

Bhadresh Bhatt was one of four people from Winnipeg who was asked to join the family on behalf of the larger Indian community in Manitoba. 

He said he didn’t know the family.

“It is sad because this has never happened in Manitoba to our community. I have been here for 32 years and have never heard of an incident (where) something like this happens,” said Bhatt. 

RCMP and diplomatic officials have identified the family as Jagdish Patel, 39; his wife Vaishaliben Patel, 37; their 11-year-old daughter Vihangi; and, their three-year-old son Dharmik. 

Family members decided to have a funeral in Canada because it would have been too expensive to return the bodies to India. There was a 15-day mourning and prayer service in the village of Dingucha in the western Indian state of Gujarat where the family was from.

The funeral in Winnipeg was livestreamed for family who were not able to be there. 

Bhatt said it was led by a Hindu priest and the bodies were cremated afterwards. 

“It was the saddest feeling I have ever had in my life at the funeral of this young family. It’s difficult to describe in words,” Bhatt said.

RCMP officers spoke with members of the Patel family while they were in Winnipeg, Cpl. Julie Courchaine said in an email. 

Investigators travelled to Toronto last week with hopes of tracking tips and information about the Patels’ time in Canada. Police have said the four arrived in Toronto on Jan. 12 before making their way to southern Manitoba. Investigators are still trying to confirm the family’s movements.

Court documents allege Steve Shand of Deltona, Fla., is part of an organized human-smuggling ring. The documents say there is evidence he may be linked to three other border crossings since December.

They say Shand was driving a van with two Indian nationals just south of the border when he was picked up on Jan. 19.

The papers say five others from India were soon after spotted in the snow walking in the direction of the van. They told border officers that they had been walking for more than 11 hours in the freezing cold and that four others had become separated from the group overnight.

One man in the group also said he had paid a large amount of money to get a fake student visa in Canada and was expecting a ride to a relative’s home in Chicago after he crossed the border, the documents say.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 8, 2022. 

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This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship

Brittany Hobson, The Canadian Press

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