Funeral for Gujarati family who died near Canada-U.S. border held in Winnipeg

It’s been nearly three weeks since the bodies of a family from Dingucha village in India were discovered in what RCMP say was an attempt to illegally cross into the United States.

Investigation into alleged human smuggling ring continues

From left to right: Jagdish Baldevbhai Patel, son Dharmik Jagdishkumar Patel, wife and mother Vaishaliben Jagdishkumar Patel and daughter Vihangi Jagdishkumar Patel are shown in a handout photo. The four Indian nationals were found dead in Manitoba near the Canada-U.S. border on Jan. 19, 2022. (Amritbhai Vakil/The Canadian Press)

Funeral ceremonies have been held in Winnipeg and India for a Gujarati family found frozen metres away from the Canada-U.S. border last month.

It's been nearly three weeks since the bodies of the family from Dingucha village in India were discovered in what RCMP say was an attempt to illegally cross into the United States.

In Winnipeg, a small group gathered at a local funeral home Sunday to witness final rites for Jagdish Patel, 39, his wife Vaishali Patel, 37, their 11-year-old daughter, Vihangi Patel, and three-year-old son, Dharmik Patel. 

"It's the saddest funeral I have ever been at," said Bhadresh Bhatt, past president of the Hindu Society of Manitoba.

"It was shocking, a family of four being cremated at the same time because of this tragic situation that took place."

Bhatt was one of only three Winnipeggers at the traditional Hindu service. Eleven family members flew in from India and the U.S., he said.

The two-hour ceremony was live streamed so family and friends could watch, Bhatt said. 

The open caskets were adorned with red and white flowers. Vihangi lay beside a white stuffed unicorn. A Paw Patrol toy in Dharmik's coffin was a poignant reminder of how young he was.

Mourners filed past the caskets to pay their final respects.

The funeral costs have been covered by an online fundraising campaign that has raised more than $80,000 US. Any additional funds will be given to their family members in India, according to a post on GoFundMe.

Jagdish Baldevbhai Patel and Vaishaliben Jagdishkumar Patel are pictured with their 11-year-old daughter, Vihangi Jagdishkumar Patel. (Family handout/Vaibhav Jha/Indian Express)

Meanwhile, more than 100 members of their extended family and community attended a ceremony in their village temple Monday morning, said Vaibhav Jha, a senior reporter for The Indian Express newspaper.

"They shared condolence messages to the family members, and they shared the grief because the entire village realized this was a personal loss for them," Jha said.

"People have always aspired to move toward a system of the U.S. or Canada or U.K. for a better life. And this is the first time that they have had such a cruel incident where a family of four died in such a tragic manner."

Posters of travel and immigration agents advertising what they describe as easy visa facilities are put up across the village of Dingucha. (Submitted by Vaibhav Jha)

This was Jha's third visit to Dingucha. On previous visits, he found half the houses were locked and empty because their owners had moved to the U.S., United Kingdom or Canada. 

Many villagers count on financial support from family members who have gone overseas for new opportunities, he said.

"What we found was a rampant market of both legal and illegal work and travel guides," Jha said.

Authorities in India, Canada and the U.S. are trying to find out who helped the Patel family and seven other Indian nationals detained on the other side of the border. 

Two of them had been travelling in a van with Florida resident Steve Shand, 47, who was charged with transporting or attempting to transport undocumented migrants.

The other five people were taken into custody near where Shand was arrested, according to court documents.

Steve Shand was indicted by a U.S. grand jury in a human smuggling case. (Steve Shand/Facebook)

It's believed they were all part of the same group, but that the family of four had gotten separated from the rest during the journey.

The families are reluctant to speak because of the police investigation into the human smuggling network, Jha said.

"They are not interested in speaking to the press unless and until all seven people who are currently under detention are returned to their homes," he said. "All they want is those seven people to return to India and hopefully in a good condition."

All seven have been released from U.S. Border Patrol custody and ordered to report to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The Patel family faced bitter cold, endless fields, large snowdrifts and complete darkness crossing the international border on foot, RCMP Assistant Commissioner Jane MacLatchy said at a Jan. 20, 2022, news conference. (Submitted by RCMP)

Manitoba RCMP officers are in contact with members of the Patel family in Winnipeg for the funeral, said spokesperson Robert Cyrenne.

Officers have also travelled to Ontario as part of their investigation. 

Mounties are still looking to confirm how the Patel family got from Toronto on Jan. 12 to Emerson, Man., near the border around Jan. 18.

When asked if officers have requested videotape from Pearson International Airport, Cyrenne said "every aspect of the family's journey is being thoroughly investigated."

Officers are working closely with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, as well as U.S. Homeland Security Investigations, and are in regular contact with RCMP liaison officers stationed in New Delhi and Washington, D.C., Cyrenne added.