Trudeau says proper probe would reveal answers on death of eight persons at US-Canada border

Bodies of eight persons were recovered later from the marsh on the riverbank near Akwesasne, a community that straddles Quebec, Ontario and New York state.

Published: 05th April 2023 03:52 PM  |   Last Updated: 05th April 2023 03:55 PM   |  A+A-

FILE: Search operation for missing persons in St Lawrence River in Akwesasne. (Photo | AP)


TORONTO: Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said a proper investigation is needed to get answers on the tragedy on the US-Canada border that resulted in the death of eight people from two families of Indian and Romanian descent and cautioned against speculating on what could have contributed it.

The members of the two families drowned last week in the St Lawrence River while they were attempting to enter the US from Canada illegally.

Bodies of eight persons were recovered later from the marsh on the riverbank near Akwesasne, a community that straddles Quebec, Ontario and New York state.

The Indian victims have been identified by their kin in India as Pravin Chaudhary (50), Dakshaben Chaudhary (45), their daughter Vidhi (23), and son Met (20).

It is too soon to draw connections between the tragedy in Akwesasne and the recent closing of the illegal border crossing at Roxham Road, Prime Minister Trudeau and Quebec Premier Francois Legault said on Tuesday.

Some refugee and immigration defence groups have said stricter border policies -- recently announced by the federal government under pressure from Quebec and the other provinces -- could be a factor pushing new arrivals to seek yet more ways to travel under the radar.

"There is not just dismay, there is heartbreak at what happened to these families," The Montreal Gazette newspaper quoted Trudeau as telling reporters.

"It is something that as governments and as Canadians we need to continue to do everything we can to keep people safe, and particularly the most vulnerable. There are lots of questions about what exactly happened in the tragedy," he said.

"That's why those questions are being answered and we need to make sure there's a proper investigation to confirm what we know before we speculate on what could have contributed or what could have prevented this," Trudeau said.

"We need to ground it in real facts and a proper investigation, and that's what we're going to be doing. There are many people full of questions, which is normal, but we must not leap to conclusions or say it is because of this or blocked by this." 

Legault said it was terrible news and his thoughts are with the people killed and their families.

"But we have to be careful (before drawing) a relationship with the decision regarding Roxham and these people who were trying to go to the United States. All the inquiries will be done, but we have to be careful." 

Both Trudeau and Legault have described the new Safe Third Country agreement signed with the US as a major political achievement because it ends the previously chaotic situation.

But some refugee groups disagree.

The renegotiation of the Safe Third Country Agreement (STCA) announced on March 24 led to the detention of dozens of asylum seekers at the Canada-US border south of Montreal for days before being sent back into rural New York with no plan, their savings spent and almost no resources to help them find food, shelter and rides.

"It's tough not to associate this with what happened at Roxham Road and the new Safe Third Country Agreement, and the overall sentiment that's been pushed forward with all these agreements and talks," Abdulla Daoud, executive director of the Montreal-based Refugee Centre, told the Montreal Gazette last week.

Though no link has been made between the effective closure of Roxham Road and the deaths of the two families, advocates for migrants say they expect more tragedies of the kind as increased border surveillance resulting from the closure pushes people to take greater risks.

"This is just one of many that will unfold, as tragedies," said Reena Kukreja, an assistant professor at Queen's University, who studies border policies and South Asian migration.

"Roxham closing, I'm thinking, is going to lead to more crossings through the river pathway and during the night, when it's stormy when the weather isn't safe and you do not expect patrols to be out," CBC News quoted her as saying.

Akwesasne Mohawk police identified two of the Romanian family members on Saturday as Cristina (Monalisa) Zenaida Iordache and Florin Iordache, who were both 28.

The man was carrying Canadian passports for the couple's two young children -- aged one and two -- who were among the victims.

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada issued a statement on Tuesday, saying the changes to the STCA are intended to deter people from using Canada's land border as a way of claiming asylum.

"We are incredibly saddened by the recent deaths near Cornwall Island. Our condolences go out to the families of the deceased," IRCC spokesperson Stuart Isherwood wrote in an email.

"Irregular routes to Canada or to other countries present very real dangers. We encourage individuals in need of protection to claim asylum in the first safe country that they enter and to do so at a designated port of entry."

Public federal documents show Florin Iordache, the Romanian father who died on the river, had applied for a pre-removal risk assessment.

That assessment is typically the last ditch effort available in Canadian immigration law to prevent or delay someone's removal from the country.

His request was denied.

Documents show Iordache was seeking a judicial review of the refusal.

A friend told The Canadian Press Monday the family had been facing deportation when they decided to join family members in Florida by attempting to cross into the US through Akwesasne.

"These two kids were born in Canada and somehow we failed these two families," said Ralph Shayne, a member of an umbrella organisation for 163 groups helping refugees.

"He preferred to risk his life than to be deported back to his country of citizenship," Shayne added, referring to Florin Iordache.

A number of groups for refugees held a protest outside Prime Minister Trudeau's Montreal riding office on Tuesday afternoon, denouncing the recent Safe Third Country Agreement changes and a lack of support for asylum seekers already in the country.

A similar protest was also held in Toronto. Police, meanwhile, continue to search for a 30-year-old local man, Casey Oakes. He was last seen last Wednesday launching into St. Lawrence in a light blue boat.

A boat matching that description was also found capsized in a marshy area where searchers pulled the bodies from the water.

On Tuesday, police said in a news release they believe Oakes was connected to the deaths, after previously declining to make that connection.


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