Virtual reality takes Quebecers where they won't go — Roxham Road

The 3D, virtual reality experience created in Roxham captures the experience of being at the border. It opens on Tuesday at Phi Centre as part of the exhibition Particles of Existence.

Particles of Existence exhibition opens at Phi Centre in Old Montreal March 27

To protect the identities of asylum seekers, Huneault covered them in images of fabric he took while covering the migrant crisis in Europe. (Michel Huneault/Roxham)

"It's illegal for you to cross here," a man says firmly.

In broken English, a soft voice replies: "I don't care, sorry. I would like to request for refugee."

That scene plays out in Roxham, a virtual reality experience chronicling 32 real interactions which took place in 2017 at the Roxham Road border crossing, where Quebec and New York State meet.

Montreal-based photographer Michel Huneault spent 16 days there to document asylum seekers crossing the border.

"All I'm asking is, come with me, experience that," he said. "Feel the emotions, confusion, feel what's happening as if you were there." 

The 3D, virtual reality experience he created, with the help of collaborators Maude Thibodeau and Chantal Dumas, captures the experience of being at the border and watching the tense moments of an illegal crossing.

Watching Roxham with headphones on allows the audience to hear where the officers and asylum seekers are standing based on where their voices are coming from, all while a camera is heard furiously snapping photos of the scene.

This image, Untitled 25, appeared in a project by Huneault called Intersection. (Michel Huneault/Roxham)

Protecting identities with fabric

The asylum seekers Huneault photographed are obstructed by colourful and quirky fabrics in his pictures.

He said editing them this way is to preserve their anonymity.

But the fabrics are also a way to tie the issue of global migration in with what is happening in Quebec — they were photographed in 2015 in Europe.

Some of them are from tents, others from blankets or clothes.

He said that in Europe, asylum seekers arrive in easily accessed locations, like train stations, where they are welcomed by residents offering food and clothing. 

By contrast, Roxham Road is far from any city centre and asylum seekers are rarely met by more than RCMP officers.​

Huneault said RCMP officers sounded intimidating before asylum seekers crossed the border, but their tone shifted once everyone was on Canadian soil. (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)
Roxham is part of a larger exhibition of immersive works at the Phi Centre called Particles of Existence which features themes of mass migration, climate change and space travel.

Curator Myriam Achard said works like Roxham introduce global conversations into people's immediate experience.

"Many of the works are very relevant in the world now, with refugees and people finding a safe place to live," Achard said.

'She froze in the ditch'

According to the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA), last year almost 20,000 asylum seekers crossed into Canada in Saint-Bernard-de-Lacolle, where Roxham Road is located. 

Monthly RCMP interceptions peaked in August, with more than 5,500. 

Photographer Michel Huneault's Roxham is seeing its world premier at the Phi Centre. (Joannie Lafreniere/NFB)
Huneault says the border crossings he captured are still happening daily — and the CBSA confirms it.

Both in January and February of this year, almost 1,500 people crossed illegally into Canada between official ports of entry.

While the vast majority of the 180 crossings Huneault documented ended with the asylum seekers successfully crossing the border, a few did not.

"A pregnant, single woman from Nigeria wanted to cross," Huneault said of the first crossing he saw.

She received a stern warning about being arrested, and possibly sent back to her country of origin if she failed to meet Canada's asylum seeker criteria.

"I don't think she was prepared for that warning. She froze in the ditch. She started crying and asking for help."

In the end, she never crossed and was picked up by a U.S. patrol car on the other side. Huneault never saw her again.

He noticed that RCMP officers sounded very harsh when yelling to people inching toward the border, but their tone changed dramatically when the person actually crossed into Canada.

Huneault was at the border for 16 days between February and August 2017, until he said a fence was put up on the Canadian side of the border.

He hopes that people experiencing Roxham will gain new insight into what asylum seekers go through that they wouldn't have had otherwise.

Particles of Existence opens at the Phi Centre (407 Saint-Pierre Street) March 27 and runs until Aug. 12, 2018. General admission tickets are $25 and visitors are strongly encouraged to book online since tickets are sold in three-hour time blocks.

Roxham is also available online through the National Film Board of Canada.