Thousands of asylum seekers crossed into Quebec in 2017, and this artist spent 6 months capturing it

What photographer Michel Huneault found on Roxham Road was more emotionally complex than anything he read in the news.

What this photographer found on Roxham Road was more complex than anything he read in the news

Michel Huneault. "Untitled 2, Roxham Road," from the project Intersection. 2017. (Courtesy of Circuit Gallery)

It was early February when photographer Michel Huneault paid his first visit to Roxham Road, making the 60km drive from his home in Montreal. The place is familiar, even if you've never been there before — a regular name in the news.

A gravelly stretch on the border between Quebec and New York State, the crossing at Roxham Road has become the busiest entry point for people seeking asylum in Canada. More than 7,000 have crossed there since the beginning of June, as RCMP told reporters last month.

Huneault arrived long before that point, but what he witnessed on his first visit to the Roxham Road was more complex than anything he'd read in the news to that point.

She was hesitating — partly because of the warning...- Michel Huneault , artist

He remembers the first time he saw someone try to cross the border.

"She was a young Nigerian woman. Pregnant," says Huneault. "It was very snowy," he recalls, and as the woman came into view, an RCMP officer greeted her with a warning. It's the same general script that every would-be border-crosser hears: "Stop. You cannot cross here. You will be arrested. Do you speak French or English?"

"She was hesitating — partly because of the warning, partly because it was slippery and she had luggage," Huneault recalls, and eventually, the woman walked away from the scene, ultimately being taken away by U.S. border patrol.

"I felt terrible. It was terrible," says Huneault.

Huneault, 41, is a former international development worker. He's also an award-winning photographer, one whose work over the last couple years has focused on subjects of migration. He covered the European migrant crisis for Le Devoir, for example.

To his eyes, a world of issues was converging every day on Roxham Road. What does migration look like today? How do we define freedom? Safety? Borders? What happens in the life-changing moment when someone crosses an invisible line?

Intersection, a new exhibition of his work, explores those questions. It appears at Toronto's Circuit Gallery to September 30, and images and audio gathered for the series will also feature in an upcoming NFB virtual reality experience which the artist expects to arrive this November. Both projects, says Huneault, try to "grasp the scope and the meaning" of migration today.

We're in a moment in history where we need to face it, we need to grasp it.- Michel Huneault , artist

"I don't bring any solution," he says. Instead, the show attempts to navigate "the complexity and confusion at all levels. Not only the legal, but the emotional, the personal levels — for everyone. For the RCMP officer, for the person crossing and for the people documenting. And that was how it all started."

Between February and July 31 this year, Huneault made 16 trips to Roxham Road, where he'd spend 12-hour days stationed at the border. During those six months he captured 180 attempted crossings, photographing the moment but also recording audio at the scene. (That first story, he says, was the only unsuccessful crossing he witnessed.)  

The people he documented came from more than 20 different countries, including Syria, Turkey, Guatemala, Sudan, the Philippines and Haiti. And while they feature in Intersection, their identities are completely obscured. He says he wanted to protect vulnerable people from future risk, but the choice also forces viewers to slow down and reconsider the scene — and maybe imagine themselves in a similar situation.

Inspired by the "immigration crossing signs" that appear on highways near the U.S.-Mexico border, solo travellers and families appear in silhouette, their bodies subbed with images of blankets and donated hand-me-downs — pictures Huneault originally gathered while photographing the migrant crisis in Germany and Austria in 2015.

Installation view of Michel Huneault's solo exhibition Intersection. See it at Toronto's Circuit Gallery to Sept. 30. (Photo: Susana Reisman/Courtesy of Circuit Gallery)

In audio tracks that accompany the photos, you can hear the twitter of birds, the crunch of the gravel road, the click of Huneault's camera shutter — and, most importantly, the dialogue between RCMP and would-be asylum seekers.

Every time someone approaches the border, an RCMP officer begins the same conversation. But the tone of the exchange, as captured in Intersection, is a strange blend of emotion on both sides. There's a mix of warmth, fear, confusion, relief.

(For more info on what happens when someone makes an irregular border crossing, check out this CBC News explainer. The legal details of the whole procedure might seem puzzling, even if you're not experiencing it firsthand.)

"I think the sound makes a very solid point that was not coming across in the other coverage that we saw," says Huneault, explaining why he included audio in the show. "This is not an easy moment. This is a very, very stressful moment while it's happening and after."

From his vantage point at the dead-end of Roxham Road, Huneault says he witnessed people coming "from all the conflicts I'd heard of" — and also the conflicts that he'd visited in the past, either as a photographer or a development worker. "Now they are all coming to meet there."

So when a surge of people from Haiti arrived at Roxham Road this summer, the situation had changed. That moment, Huneault says, marked the "natural end" of the project, as the story pulled focus to one particular group of migrants.

On top of that, the environment itself had evolved in response to this spike in traffic. The path across the border was cleared and police put up makeshift offices to process the new arrivals. Crucially, a security fence was raised, preventing easy access to the area for anyone documenting the action.

"We live in a migratory society and time," says Huneault. "We're in a moment in history where we need to face it, we need to grasp it." Intersection, he says, is about that. "[It's] really just trying — as is the rest of the population and the authorities and the politicians — trying to grasp, 'What does it mean? Where do we go from here?'"

Some selections from Intersection:

Michel Huneault. "Untitled 10, Roxham Road," from the project Intersection. 2017. (Courtesy of Circuit Gallery)
Michel Huneault. "Untitled 3, Roxham Road," from the project Intersection. 2017. (Courtesy of Circuit Gallery)
Michel Huneault. "Untitled 9, Roxham Road," from the project Intersection. 2017. (Courtesy of Circuit Gallery)
Intersection, a solo exhibition by Michel Huneault, runs at Toronto's Circuit Gallery to Sept. 30. Photos and audio from the project will feature in an upcoming NFB virtual reality experience. (Photo: Susana Reisman/Courtesy of Circuit Gallery)

Michel Huneault. Intersection. To Sept. 30 at Circuit Gallery, Toronto. www.circuitgallery.com

About the Author

Leah Collins

Leah Collins is the Senior Writer at CBC Arts.

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