The life and death of Fritznel Richard: What happens after Roxham Road

Fritznel Richard spent his life searching for home. He thought Canada would be the end of his family's struggles. His wife says that wasn't the case.

Richard thought his family's struggles would end in Canada. His wife says that wasn't the case

A woman holds a toddler in her arms, as a framed photo of her husband sits next to her.
Guenda, the wife of Fritznel Richard, who died attempting to cross into the United States from Quebec in late December, says she wants Canada to be more welcoming to Haitians. (Verity Stevenson/CBC)
Fritznel Richard, a Haitian migrant, died attempting to cross into the United States from Quebec in late December. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has pledged more than $20 million in new humanitarian aid and support for migrants in Haiti, but some worry that money won't help victims of a broken system like Fritznel. The CBC’s Verity Stevenson brings us her documentary.

At almost two years old, Jeffrey has travelled across more countries than most people see in a lifetime.

Lying in his mother's lap, his eyes wide, he barely makes a sound. The only time he cries is when she puts him down.

His mother is Guenda, the wife of Fritznel Richard, the 44-year-old man whose frozen body was found more than a week after he attempted to cross by foot into the United States on Dec. 23.

They're sitting on a couch in the Naples, Fla., home of Guenda's younger sister. A framed photograph of Richard, taken at their wedding, sits on a table next to them.

CBC has agreed not to use Guenda's last name due to her precarious immigration status and fear of being deported to Haiti. 

"I lost a good husband, an amazing partner. He was always there for us," she says. 

It's the day after Richard's family held a small private funeral for him in Naples.

Frantz André, who advocates for asylum seekers in Montreal, has travelled here to bring Richard's ashes home to Guenda. He agreed to let CBC follow him to Florida for a radio documentary about Richard's life.

Guenda is comforted by a family member before the Naples, Fla., funeral of her husband, Fritznel Richard, on Jan. 28. (Verity Stevenson/CBC)

André has been helping asylum seekers in Montreal for free for more than seven years. He didn't know Richard while he was alive but managed to get Guenda's phone number after her husband died, and offered to help answer questions from police and organize a funeral for him in Montreal.

He – and Guenda – hope Richard can be a catalyst for change, pushing Canada to improve support for migrants. 

7 days in the Darién Gap

Guenda recounts the life she shared with Richard and the journeys they undertook in search of stability and security.

"My life changed when I met Richard. He's somebody that always gives you strength and was always trying his best," Guenda says. "He'd say, 'This is what we're going to do. It's going to work out, we're going to get out of this situation. Don't be discouraged. Keep your head up.'" 

They met over a decade ago in Port-au-Prince at a mutual friend's house when Richard picked a fruit off a mango tree and offered it to her, saying it was a gift from her future husband. 

"It's like we were both looking for somebody to love," Guenda says. 

Just a year and a half ago, they were walking through the Darién Gap with Jeffrey, two months old at the time.

The Darién Gap is a treacherous 100-kilometre stretch of jungle at the Colombia-Panama border that has seen a surge of hundreds of thousands of migrants, like Richard and his family, fleeing poverty and strife in South and Central America made worse during the pandemic.

Many die along the way, drowning in fast-flowing rivers or killed by bandits who commit kidnappings and rape for ransom. 

It took the family seven days to get through the forest. "Beaucoup de souffrance," a lot of suffering, Guenda says in French.

Heading to North America from Brazil, they travelled through a dozen countries by bus and on foot.

Frantz André brought Guenda her husband's ashes from Montreal. (Verity Stevenson/CBC)

Their journey resembles that of a growing number of displaced people across the world, and the risks people are having to take — often, only to arrive in richer countries where political debates on immigration and inefficient systems have created additional hostility for migrants to face.

Richard had heard Canada was more welcoming for Haitians, that there were less chances of being deported to Haiti, that it would be easier to obtain residency as an asylum seeker than in the U.S.

He thought their struggles would end here, but Guenda says that wasn't the case.

"It wasn't easy at all. I got sick, Jeffrey [suffered] and the cold…" she says. After months of living in Montreal, Richard and Guenda still hadn't received their work permits. They were relying on financial aid from the government that didn't cover the cost of their rent and groceries. 

In October, Guenda hired a smuggler to help her and Jeffrey cross back into the States so they could return to her sister's place in Florida. 

Richard decided to stay in Montreal, hoping he'd get his work permit soon and be able to get a job. By December, after more than a year in the country, he still hadn't received it. He was lonely and missed his wife and child. He wanted to see them for Christmas.

He hired the same man to take him to the border near Roxham Road, the popular irregular crossing point between New York State and Quebec's Montérégie region south of Montreal, where he and Guenda and Jeffrey first made their way into Canada. 

Guenda and her husband Fritznel Richard, pictured in the Dominican Republic when they lived there, travelled across a dozen countries to get to Canada. (Submitted by Guenda)

When a storm so bad experts were calling it a "bomb cyclone" was forecast, Richard tried to change the date with a smuggler he'd hired to help get him across.

Guenda says that for some reason, the smuggler refused.

"This is what this person does," she says. "It's a job for them."

Richard called her, disoriented, cold and alone, saying, "I'm dying, I love you." She begged him to call 911 but he was too afraid of being arrested and getting deported to Haiti.

Guenda says all she wants for the future is to be granted temporary protected status in the U.S. and to bring her and Richard's other son, 11-year-old Dawins, over from Haiti. 

Dawins is recovering from surgery to his leg and doesn't yet know his father died. Guenda is still struggling to find the right time — the right words — amid her own painful grief. 

Immigration, Citizenship and Refugees Canada says it implemented a faster system for asylum seekers to apply for work permits in November. 

Guenda says that if Richard had been able to work, "it would have avoided him going down this path and dying."

Search for home

Relatives of Richard say his search for home began in his teens, after his mother managed to get a green card in the U.S.

A few years later, after his older brother developed and then recovered from cancer but faced abuse from their father, Richard began to act out. He hung out with the wrong people, stuff like that, a cousin explained. 

He was in the car of someone who had a gun when they were pulled over. The officers found the gun and Richard was deported to Haiti. Determined to find a way out of Haiti, Richard learned English and then several other languages.

He and Guenda moved to the Dominican Republic, then Brazil — where Jeffrey was born — and Richard worked in customer service for American companies. 

Twice a week, the Notre-Dame Catholic Church in Little Haiti, Miami, holds information sessions for newcomers. (Verity Stevenson/CBC)

Guada, an older cousin, speaks at his funeral in Florida at the end of January. 

A framed picture of Richard, along with his urn surrounded by flowers, stands on a table beside her. 

"Fritznel was tough. He was resilient and he was relentless," she says. "Looking at his eyes, and looking at all the pains that he must have gone through, through his journey in life, he must have felt very lonely a lot of the time."

CBC has also agreed not to use Guada's last name. She fears her family's irregular immigration status could affect her work. She moved to the U.S. in the 1980s but says she was like a big sister to Richard. 

'The Canadian dream'

While André, the advocate from Montreal, is in Naples with Richard's family, he hears from contacts in Miami's Little Haiti, who inform him that U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas will be holding a meeting about Haitian migrants.

Beforehand, we walk to the Catholic Church across the street, where migrants are lining up for help with their applications for temporary protected status in the U.S. 

André speaks with the priest, Father Youry Jules, who says many of the migrants he meets talk about Canada. 

"They see Canada has a land of opportunity, that can welcome us, but mostly when they get there they find humiliation," Jules says.

Father Youry Jules, a priest at the Catholic church in Miami's Little Haiti, says his community was shocked by Fritznel Richard's death. (Verity Stevenson/CBC)

André introduces himself and says he believes Canada is a more welcoming place than the U.S., but that "there are rumours you get residency as soon as you walk in and that is simply not true."

"I'm not talking to you to encourage you. It's your decision, but if you want information, call me," he says, handing out his business card.

A man named Alix Antoine perks up. He's heard a lot about Canada, but isn't sure he'll qualify for residency. 

"We're looking for a place where we can have a better life, where we can be free to move around," Antoine says in an interview afterward. "To survive. To survive in dignity."

Antoine gave André a call only minutes after he'd left. 

Alejandro Mayorkas, the United States Secretary of Homeland Security, spoke with reporters in Miami last month about an immigration program for Haitians. (Verity Stevenson/CBC)

André says American border policies have pushed people north toward a new "Canadian dream," but that "Canada is no longer what it was due to the economy." Still, he thinks it's safer for migrants than the States. 

"The rhetoric in the States, and even in Canada, is putting them in a situation where they don't know what to do anymore. They feel they're the Walking Dead, across land where they're never welcome," he says. 

"I want to give them hope."

Journalists aren't allowed at the meeting, but André says he confronted Mayorkas about what happened to Richard. 

He says the United States is complicit in Richard's fate because of its role in the Safe Third Country Agreement, an agreement between Canada and the U.S. which forces migrants to claim asylum in the first of the two countries they land in, unless they somehow find their way in through unofficial crossings — like Roxham Road. 

Frantz André heard from contacts in Miami's Little Haiti that a top U.S. official would be holding a meeting with migrant advocates in the neighbourhood. (Verity Stevenson/CBC)

Mayorkas is in Little Haiti to discuss a new program to discourage migrants from Haiti, Venezuela and Nicaragua from crossing the border into the U.S. irregularly.

The program makes it impossible to claim asylum once they've landed in the country, unless they applied with a sponsor and were accepted beforehand. 

André worries Canada will adopt a similar policy. He says Richard's death shows what can happen when migrants are forced to take more and more dangerous risks. 

"Fritznel Richard is going to make a difference, I'm convinced," André says. "He's more present now than when he was physically, because as an asylum seeker, he was unseen. Now, he's visible and I'm here. I'm Fritznel Richard. I am Fritznel Richard."

Audio Doc produced through the Audio Doc Unit with Verity Stevenson, Craig Desson and Julia Pagel.


Verity Stevenson is a reporter with CBC in Montreal. She has previously worked for the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star in Toronto, and the Telegraph-Journal in Saint John.

With translation by Bethyna Saint Laurent