TORONTO — U.S. authorities said Thursday that they had charged a Florida man with human smuggling after four people, including an infant and a teenage boy, were found dead roughly seven miles from the U.S.-Canada border in the province of Manitoba.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police said they believe that the four people, whose bodies were found near the community of Emerson, Manitoba, on Wednesday, were attempting to cross into the United States from Canada and had died of exposure to the cold in a blizzard, during which temperatures fell to minus-31 degrees Fahrenheit.
“It is an absolute and heartbreaking tragedy,” Jane MacLatchy, assistant commissioner with the RCMP in Manitoba, said at a news conference Thursday. “I offer my condolences and those of the RCMP to every family member and loved one who is affected by this tragedy.”
Shortly after Shand’s arrest, U.S. authorities said they encountered five more Indian nationals who claimed they had crossed the border on foot after walking for roughly 11 hours. They were walking in the direction of where Shand was arrested and said they were expecting to be picked up by someone in the United States.
The U.S. attorney’s office in Minnesota said a man in the group was carrying a backpack that he said belonged to a family of four Indian nationals that had been walking with them but had become separated at some point during the journey across the border. The backpack contained children’s clothes and toys, among other items.
U.S. authorities alerted their Canadian counterparts.
After a nearly four hour search, the RCMP found four bodies on the Canadian side of the border. The U.S. attorney’s office in Minnesota said they were “tentatively” identified as the family of four that was separated from the rest of the group.
“These victims faced not only the cold weather,” MacLatchy said, “but also endless fields, large snowdrifts and complete darkness.”
While deaths on the U.S.-Canada border are believed to be relatively rare compared to those in the area of the U.S.-Mexico border, there have been several instances of migrants dying or sustaining serious injuries from exposure to the cold while attempting to cross the frontier on foot.
In 2019, a Dominican man heading to New York drowned after becoming disoriented while walking through the cold woods of Quebec. A Ghanaian asylum seeker bound for Manitoba died from hypothermia in Minnesota in 2017. Other asylum seekers walking into Canada have lost fingers because of frostbite.
MacLatchy said she had a message for those thinking of crossing the border by foot in either direction.
“Just don’t do it,” she said. “Do not listen to anyone who tells you they can get you to your destination safely. They cannot. … I do understand that for some there may be a great need to get to another country, but this is not the way. You will be risking your life and the lives of the people you care about if you try it.”
Under the terms of a 2004 agreement between Canada and the United States, asylum seekers who try to enter Canada from the United States at an official border crossing are sent back to the United States — and vice versa. But those who cross the frontier at unauthorized points of entry can enter and file asylum claims.
The vast majority of traffic at unofficial entry points along the U.S.-Canada border has been migrants heading north from the United States to Canada. Those crossings rose during the administration of President Donald Trump, who sought to limit asylum, refugee resettlement and illegal immigration.
Canada has pressed the United States to harden their shared border and to close the loophole that allows for crossings at “irregular” points of entry. But some analysts have argued that tightening the border is unlikely to deter migrants from crossing and would make their journeys only more dangerous.
Rema Jamous Imseis, the Canada representative for the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, said the agency “deeply regrets the tragic loss of life.”
“Whatever the circumstances, no one should ever have to choose such a perilous journey,” she said in a statement.