Winnipeg Gujarati community ready to help after family’s trek ends at US border

A member of the Gujarati community in Winnipeg says they’ll support loved ones of the family who died while making the perilous trek to cross into the United States in the bitter cold, whether they resided in the city or not.

Kirit Thakrar, a Winnipeg accountant who is originally from Gujarat, a western state in India, said members of the community are taken aback by the tragedy.

It appears the family of four, whose lives ended in the frigid cold outside Emerson, Man. last week, were among a group of 11 migrants from India trying to cross the border. The surviving people are fluent in Gujarati, a language spoken in western India, and spoke little to no English.

“We’re all very upset,” Thakrar said.

“Once we find out who the family is, we’ll provide the help they need.”

Winnipeg’s Gujarati community has found themselves thrust into the spotlight after the discovery of four people, believed to be Gujaratis, in a frozen field, just steps outside the Canada-U.S. border.

‘We all come together’ to help

India’s high commissioner to Canada, Ajay Bisaria, called the deaths a “grave tragedy” on Twitter and said a consular team would head to Manitoba to offer assistance. India’s ambassador to the United States said the consul team from Chicago would help from Minnesota.

Thakrar said the Gujaratis in Winnipeg tend to come to each other’s aid. It’s a trait he admires about the community, one which may be needed again.

“It’s a very close-knit community,” he said. “If anybody has any issues, we all come together and help the family out.”

Authorities believe the family of four was being smuggled into the United States as part of an illegal scheme. Steve Shand, a 47-year-old from Florida, has been charged with human smuggling in connection with the incident.

Seven other migrants attempting to cross the border around the same time were detained. They, too, spoke Gujarati.

From his conversations, Thakrar, who has lived in Winnipeg for 40 years, said local members of the community are stumped as to the identities of these cross-border travelers.

Authorities haven’t revealed if any of them lived in Manitoba. The RCMP said on Friday it would take a few days to identify the people who died.

“Community members, they don’t know who they are. People I talk to, nobody knows who they are.”

Operating since 1978, the Gujarati Cultural Society of Manitoba works to promote and preserve the Gujarati language, traditions, heritage and culture. (Submitted/Kirit Thakrar)

Since 1978, the Gujarati Cultural Society of Manitoba was formed to preserve the Gujarati language, traditions and culture in the province.

While exact population figures are not available, Statistics Canada says at least 3,000 Manitobans spoke Gujarati as their mother tongue. Community members believe at least a few thousand Gujaratis reside in Manitoba, many of which are university-educated professionals.

Sanjay Patel, president of the cultural society, said Gujaratis usually gather to mark Hindu celebrations, such as Navratri, where they rent out a soccer field at the University of Winnipeg for celebrations and dance.

In addition to contributing to life in Canada, Patel said Gujaratis place a premium on ensuring children know their heritage. Volunteers run a weekly school in which as many as 150 kids learn the language and heritage.

The Gujarati School is now being run virtually because of COVID-19 precautions, but it’s otherwise held every Saturday during the school year at General Wolfe School in Winnipeg.

“We teach them and promote them so they can communicate with our families,” he said.

Sanjay Patel, president of the Gujarati Cultural Society of Manitoba, said community members place an importance on contributing to Canadian life and retaining ties to their own language, culture and heritage. (Travis Golby/CBC)

The dangerous trek undertaken by 11 Indian nationals shows the desperate lengths some people are taking to enter the United States. 

Patel said that isn’t the feeling of the Gujaratis he knows in Winnipeg.

“I see the opportunities here,” he said.

Neither he, nor Thakrar, previously heard of Indian migrants attempting to cross illegally from Manitoba into the United States. Illegal border crossings have usually happened in the other direction, with travellers seeking asylum in Canada.

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