Montreal's Haitian community honours man who died near Roxham Road border crossing

Dozens of people gathered at a funeral home in Montréal-Nord Sunday afternoon to pay their last respects to Fritznel Richard, a Haitian man found dead in Quebec earlier this month near an irregular border crossing.

'I could see the beauty, the wisdom, the kindness that was in his heart,' says friend of Fritznel Richard

A photo taken from behind of peop;e sitting in chairs at funeral service.
Montreal's Haitian community came together to pay their last respects to Fritznel Richard, a man who died last month while attempting to cross into the United States through Quebec's Roxham Road. (John Ngala/CBC)

Dozens of people gathered at a funeral home in Montréal-Nord Sunday afternoon to pay their last respects to Fritznel Richard, a Haitian man found dead in Quebec earlier this month near an irregular border crossing.

Richardson Charles Alida, one of the few at the funeral who knew Richard, said the Haitian asylum seeker was alone in Montreal and wanted to reunite with his wife in the United States. 

"I think he wanted to have legal status as well, because here he still didn't have a work permit and he didn't have his [permanent] residence," Alida said in an interview.

Alida, who met Richard while shopping in a convenience store, said he didn't get to know him well but remembers him as kind.

"I could see the beauty, the wisdom, the kindness that was in his heart. He was someone who loved people," he said.

While most people in attendance had never met Richard, many guests — the majority of whom were of Haitian descent — said they came out to show solidarity with their community. 

I could see the beauty, the wisdom, the kindness that was in his heart.- Richardson Charles Alida, friend of Fritznel Richard

"Even though [few here] knew him, he was a part of us," said Frédéric Boisrond, a Haitian-born sociologist at McGill University and one of the organizers of Sunday's funeral.

"We have an obligation to assure that each person lives and dies in dignity."

man taking a mirror selfie
Fritznel Richard was trying to reunite with his wife and infant son in the United States when his body was found earlier this month near the Roxham Road crossing. (Fritznel Richard/Facebook)

The body of 44-year-old Richard was found on Jan. 4 in a wooded area in St-Bernard-de-Lacolle, Que., near Roxham Road, a popular crossing point for asylum seekers coming to Canada. Police say he appears to have died of hypothermia while trying to enter the United States.

Frantz André, a spokesman for a Montreal-based group that helps undocumented people, said Richard was attempting to reunite with his wife and 18-month-old son in Florida, who both had left Quebec a few months prior.

Another 11-year-old son remains in Haiti.

Richard had been reported missing to Montreal police in late December but a search for him was called off on Dec. 29 because police believed he had entered the U.S.

In an interview earlier this month, Richard's wife told CBC News the couple struggled to make ends meet in the Montreal area, due to delays in obtaining a work permit and rising costs of food and housing.

A portrait of a man.
Frantz André says the Canadian and Quebec governments need to do a better job of making asylum seekers feel welcome, of issuing working permits and helping people find affordable housing. (John Ngala/CBC)

"They arrived here, in a country that calls itself welcoming and where democracy reigns, to die here, in 2023. Is this our welcoming land?" André said during the funeral.

André said he sees a growing number of asylum seekers leaving the country, adding both the Canadian and Quebec governments need to do a better job issuing working permits, helping them find affordable housing and making them feel welcome.

"Give them the fair chance to prove that they deserve to be protected by Canada," he said. 

Unable to enter Canada after abandoning her asylum claim, Richard's wife watched the funeral via Zoom, tears frequently streaming down her face.

Overcome with emotion, she was unable to speak when her turn came.

'This could have been prevented' 

Boisrond said Richard might still be alive if there were better communication between migrants seeking help and the systems in place to assist them.

"This could have been prevented if the organizations had been able to find him before he took this decision," he said. "It could have been prevented if Richard was better informed about services available for him in Montreal."

Migrants have died before while trying to cross the border. In 2019, a man from the Dominican Republic was found dead in Canada near Roxham Road, the Washington Post reported. In January 2022, the bodies of four Indian migrants were found in Manitoba near the U.S. border. 

Of the 39,540 asylum seekers intercepted by the RCMP along the Canadian border in 2022, 39,171 were located in Quebec.

A man standing in a suit.
Frédéric Boisrond says Richard's death could have been prevented had he known about the resources available to him. (John Ngala/CBC)

Ruth Pierre-Paul, director of Bureau De La Communauté Haïtienne De Montréal, said she attended Sunday's funeral to support Richard and the family he left behind.

She said she's calling on the provincial and federal governments to sit down together to come up with a plan to ensure that no other migrant dies this way.

"It's a shame that these people look for a better life and they end up losing it," she said. 

For André, a part of the solution is to abolish the Safe Third Country Agreement, the 16-year-old agreement between the U.S. and Canada requiring migrants to claim asylum in the first of the two countries they land in. 

A loophole in the agreement — the fact it applies only to official border crossings — is what has pushed thousands of migrants to cross into Canada on foot. If they find another way into the country outside of official ports of entry, they are allowed to claim asylum. 

"Let's make sure that the [Safe Third Country Agreement] is cancelled, let's make sure [asylum seekers] are getting a work permit and getting affordable housing," he said. 

"Give them the opportunity to live decently and with respect." 

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

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with files from CBC's John Ngala and The Canadian Press