Family members of Indian migrants who died near the border attend a funeral in Manitoba

Large bouquets of red and white flowers lay atop four separate coffins containing the bodies of an Indian couple and their two children who died while attempting to walk across the United States in harsh winter conditions in southern Manitoba.

A small funeral was held Sunday for the family more than two weeks after their frozen bodies were found just yards from the Canada-US border near Emerson, Man.

Nearly a dozen family members from the United States and India traveled to Winnipeg for the two-hour ceremony at a funeral home. The funeral was broadcast live for loved ones who were unable to attend. On Tuesday, there were nearly 20,000 views of the ceremony.

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.

Officers found the bodies in the snow on January 19. Police believe the four were part of a larger human trafficking operation. A Florida man arrested on the US side of the border has been charged with human trafficking.

Bhadresh Bhatt was one of four people from Winnipeg who were asked to join the family on behalf of Manitoba’s large Indian community.

Bhatt said he didn’t know the family but wanted to be supportive.

“Everyone who came from India and the United States made all the necessary arrangements so that they didn’t need our help,” Bhatt said. “We were just there to offer our condolences on behalf of the community.”

Bhatt said the funeral was conducted by a Hindu priest and the bodies were then cremated.

“It was the saddest feeling I have ever felt at this young family’s funeral. It’s hard to describe in words,” he said.

Mourners sat in groups on the pews as the priest led the ceremony, the live stream showed. Towards the end, they took turns in front of each open coffin to pay their respects. A group of women hugged each other as they said goodbye.

A toy could be seen emerging from the coffin of the youngest Patel, Dharmik, while a stuffed animal lay with his older sister, Vihangi, whose hair was held in place with a pink bow.

The family members decided to have a funeral in Canada because it would have been too expensive to bring the bodies back 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 originated.

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

Investigators traveled to Toronto last week hoping to find advice and information about the Patels’ stay in Canada. Police said the four men arrived in Toronto on January 12 before heading to southern Manitoba. Investigators are still trying to confirm the family’s whereabouts.

“Every aspect of the family’s trip is thoroughly investigated,” Courchaine said.

Court documents allege Steve Shand of Deltona, Florida 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 January 19.

Newspapers say five more Indians were seen walking in the snow soon after in the direction of the van. They told border agents they had walked for more than 11 hours in the freezing cold and that four other people had become separated from the group overnight.

A man in the group also said that he had paid a large sum of money to obtain a fake student visa in Canada and that he expected to be taken to a relative’s home in Chicago after crossing the border, according to the documents.

Bhatt said the community is still shocked by what happened.

“It’s sad because this has never happened in Manitoba in our community. I’ve been here 32 years and have never heard of an incident (where) something like this happens.”

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on February 8, 2022.

Brittany Hobson, The Canadian Press

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