Indian police identify family who died crossing illegally into U.S. from Akwesasne

The four Indian nationals whose bodies were among eight pulled from the St. Lawrence River last week had been travelling in Canada on a tourist visa, a police official from their home state said Monday.

Eight people — four from India and four of Romanian descent — died trying to cross illegally into the United States from Canada through Akwesasne Mohawk Territory, which straddles provincial and international boundaries and includes regions of Quebec, Ontario and New York state.

Achal Tyagi, superintendent of police for the city of Mehsana, in the western state of Gujarat, told The Canadian Press that the four deceased Indians were members of the Chaudhari family. They included the father, Praveenbhai Chaudhari, 50; mother, Dakshaben, 45; son, Meet, 20; and 23-year-old daughter, Vidhi.

Praveenbhai was a farmer, Tyagi said, adding that the family was from the Mehsana district, which has a population of about 1.8 million people. Indian police have opened an investigation and met with Chaudhari family members Monday, he said.

“They were in Canada for the last two months. And they had gone from here on a Canada (tourist) visa,” he said in an interview from Gujarat.

“But what transpired in Canada and why they were travelling to the U.S. is not exactly known.” 

Searchers dock at a marina as the search for victims continues Friday, March 31, 2023 after a boat capsized and left eight dead in Akwesasne, Que. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

Police are in touch with the Canadian Embassy in India and the RCMP, Tyagi said. Details are sparse, he added, because the investigation is in its early days.

“Right now, the information that we have is that the family had gone to Canada on a tourist visa. And they were just travelling in Canada. They were also talking to their family members. That’s what some of the family members have said. So let’s see,” Tyagi said.

“After more details emerge, you’ll be able to give a clearer picture.”

Meanwhile, there was still no sign on Monday of a missing Akwesasne man whose boat was found close to where the bodies of the eight migrants were pulled from the river, about 130 kilometres southwest of Montreal. Akwesasne Mohawk Police have been searching for Casey Oakes, 30, since last Thursday. Officers found the bodies while they were searching for him.

Oakes was last seen Wednesday night operating the boat in the Mohawk territory, but police have made no direct connections between Oakes and the deaths.

Police have said the eight victims consisted of two families, one of Romanian and another of Indian descent. Akwesasne Mohawk Police identified two of the migrants on Saturday as Cristina (Monalisa) Zenaida Iordache and Florin Iordache, 28. Florin Iordache was carrying Canadian passports for their two young children — aged one and two — who were among the victims.

The Romanian family had been living in the Toronto area. The priest at the All Saints Romanian Orthodox Church, in Scarborough, said Monday the family was included in a prayer during a weekend service commemorating those who had died.

“We included them too, learning about the tragedy,” Father Emanuel Țencaliuc said in an interview Monday. Țencaliuc said the couple’s two children were baptized at the church in June 2022.

“A young family, quiet, shy,” the priest said in an interview. “It seems like they wanted to go to church and belong to the community.”

On Monday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters in Val-d’Or, Que., 525 kilometres northwest of Montreal, that the deaths of the two families were an immeasurable tragedy.

The families died less than a week after Canada and the United States amended an immigration deal that prevents people in either country from crossing the border and making a refugee claim. The amendment changed the deal so that it covers unofficial points of entry along the 9,000-kilometre border between the countries.

Trudeau said it’s too early to say whether the new deal encouraged the two families to try and cross illegally into the U.S.

“This was a horrific story and there is a proper investigation going on,” Trudeau said. “We need to understand all the facts involved before we draw conclusions, but we do need to make sure we’re doing everything we can … to remain an open and welcoming country with a rigorous and well-applied immigration system that also protects the most vulnerable.”

He made similar comments during an appearance Sunday night on a popular Quebec French-language talk show, “Tout le monde en parle,” during which he said he wanted to discourage people from putting themselves in danger by crossing the border irregularly.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 3, 2023. 

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