Ghanaian grandmother who died in ditch en route to Canada might have been able to enter legally

Mavis Otuteye's family in Ghana is reeling with news of her death in a drainage ditch as she tried to walk into Canada last week, and immigration experts say she probably could have made it legally into Canada without taking that dangerous journey.

With a newborn granddaughter in Toronto, she was eligible to enter country, immigration experts say

CBC News has learned Mavis Otuteye was trying to get to Toronto to meet her newborn granddaughter. (Mavis Otuteye/Facebook)

Mavis Otuteye's family in Ghana is reeling with news of her death in a drainage ditch as she tried to walk into Canada last week, and immigration experts say she probably could have made it legally into Canada without taking that dangerous journey.

"I don't believe my sister would die so soon," said Narteh Larnyoh, Otuteye's younger brother. "I'm upset about my sister."

Otuteye died as she travelled to Canada to meet her first granddaughter, born just five weeks ago in Toronto.

The grandmother's body was found about half a kilometre south of the Manitoba border town of Emerson on May 26 after the local sheriff's office got a call about a missing person. Border patrol agents used ATVs and a helicopter to find her. An initial autopsy has ruled hypothermia as the cause of death.

Mavis Otuteye died in this drainage ditch while trying to walk over the international border. (Karen Pauls/CBC)

If she planned to make a refugee claim, Otuteye might have qualified to enter Canada legally at an official border crossing under the family member exception in the Safe Third Country Agreement, immigration lawyers say.

Otuteye could have qualified if her daughter or another close relative (including a grandchild) fell into one of a number of categories, including being a Canadian citizen, permanent resident, refugee or holding a work or study permit.

The granddaughter she was trying to visit would have allowed her to meet that qualification.

"Mavis' situation would have fallen under the family member exception, which states that [a close relation] of a person seeking entry into Canada from the United States are present in Canada, then they can enter Canada at a port of entry (and so would not be returnable to the United States)," Winnipeg lawyer Bashir Khan wrote in an email.

"Mavis did not need to travel on the open field and risk her life. She could have easily entered Canada through a port of entry, instead of attempting to cross between ports of entry."

Ken Zaifman, of Winnipeg-based Zaifman Immigration Lawyers, says it's unfortunate so many people don't understand their options.

Winnipeg immigration lawyer Ken Zaifman says Mavis Otuteye's death 'didn’t have to happen.' (Gary Solilak/CBC)

"There are some unanswered questions, but clearly there were some options open to this family," he said.

"We have to step back and try to educate people in some way — to say, 'Look at the options you have before you take these drastic steps.' It's a sad situation. I feel for her daughter … but it didn't have to happen."

Woman was staying illegally in U.S.

Larnyoh said he heard about his sister's death on May 29. He called her husband, Dick Otuteye, who verified the news "that my sister got [in] an accident when she's going to Canada."

Larnyoh hasn't seen Otuteye, the fourth of six siblings, since 1999, but talked to her on the phone regularly and said they were close.

Reached in Ghana, Dick Otuteye said no decisions have been made about his wife's funeral.

The family is trying to get her remains back to Ghana "if it's possible."

CBC News has learned Otuteye was living illegally in the United States.

A spokesperson for U.S. Customs and Border Protection said she overstayed her 2006 visitor visa. If she had been picked up by authorities on the American side, she would have been arrested and subject to removal to Ghana.