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Police connect missing Akwesasne man to migrants found dead in St. Lawrence River

Four Indian nationals whose bodies were found have been identified by Indian authorities
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Searchers look for victims Friday, March 31, 2023, after a boat capsized and left eight people dead in Akwesasne, Que. Authorities investigating the disappearance of an Akwesasne man whose boat was found near the bodies of eight migrants pulled from the St. Lawrence River say he was connected to the case. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

Authorities investigating the disappearance of an Akwesasne man whose boat was found near the bodies of eight migrants pulled from the St. Lawrence River last week are confirming he is connected to the case.

In a statement, Akwesasne Mohawk police say Casey Oakes is linked to the discovery on Thursday and Friday of the eight victims, but they did not provide further details.

The 30-year-old Oakes remains missing and police are continuing their search for him today in the territory about 130 kilometres southwest of Montreal.

Mohawk police have been searching for Oakes since last Thursday, when officers discovered six bodies in the water; they found two other bodies the next day.

Oakes was last seen Wednesday night operating the boat in the Mohawk territory, but police had previously made no direct connections between Oakes and the deaths. Akwesasne police said they would continue searching for him on Tuesday, with the help of other police forces, including the RCMP.

Eight people — four from India and four of Romanian descent — died trying to cross illegally into the United States from Canada through Akwesasne Mohawk Territory, which straddles provincial and international boundaries and includes regions of Quebec, Ontario and New York state.

The four Indian nationals had been travelling in Canada on a tourist visa, a police official from their home state said Monday.

Achal Tyagi, superintendent of police for the city of Mehsana, in the western state of Gujarat, told The Canadian Press that the four deceased Indians were members of the Chaudhari family. They included the father, Praveenbhai Chaudhari, 50; mother, Dakshaben, 45; son, Meet, 20; and 23-year-old daughter, Vidhi.

Praveenbhai was a farmer, Tyagi said, adding that the family was from the Mehsana district, which has a population of about 1.8 million people. Indian police have opened an investigation and met with Chaudhari family members Monday, he said.

“They were in Canada for the last two months, and they had gone from here on a Canada (tourist) visa,” he said in an interview from Gujarat.

“But what transpired in Canada and why they were travelling to the U.S. is not exactly known.”

Local police are in touch with the Canadian Embassy in India and the RCMP, Tyagi said. Details are sparse, he added, because the investigation is in its early days.

The Chaudharis are at least the second family from Gujarat who have died trying to cross illegally into the U.S. from Canada in the past 18 months. In January 2022, four members of the Patel family froze to death; their bodies were found metres away from the border, near Emerson, Man. Three people in India have been charged in their deaths, while a Florida man is facing trial in Minnesota for human smuggling.

Meanwhile, Akwesasne Mohawk police identified two of the Romanian migrants on Saturday as Cristina (Monalisa) Zenaida Iordache and Florin Iordache, 28. Florin Iordache was carrying Canadian passports for their two young children — aged one and two — who were among the victims.

The Iordache family had been living in the Toronto area. Father Emanuel Țencaliuc, the priest at the All Saints Romanian Orthodox Church, in Scarborough, said Monday the four victims were included in a prayer during a weekend service commemorating those who had died.

Țencaliuc said the couple’s two children were baptized at the church in June 2022. “A young family, quiet, shy,” the priest said in an interview Monday. “It seems like they wanted to go to church and belong to the community.”

A friend of Florin Iordache said Monday the family had been facing deportation from Canada. The friend, who did not want to be named over fears of angering immigration authorities, said Iordache had been frantically seeking a lawyer in the days before the tragedy after being denied permission to stay in the country.

According to the Federal Court’s online docket, someone matching Florin Iordache’s name and another person, Monalisa Budi, had applied for a judicial review of a pre-removal risk assessment on March 10. Immigration officials conduct risk assessments to ensure potential deportees are not being sent to a country where they would face torture, persecution or other risks to life.

In an exchange on Facebook, Iordache’s friend, a Toronto resident and fellow Romanian community member, questioned why immigration authorities would seek to deport Iordache, who had two Canadian-born children and was working jobs in construction and cleaning.

“He was happy here,” the friend said, adding that the Romanian community is trying to raise money to help fly the bodies back home to their families, whom the friend described as low-income.

The two families died less than a week after Canada and the United States amended an immigration deal that prevents people in either country from crossing the border and making a refugee claim. The amendment changed the deal so that it covers unofficial points of entry along the 9,000-kilometre border between the countries.

On Monday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters in Val-d’Or, Que., 525 kilometres northwest of Montreal, that the deaths of the two families were an immeasurable tragedy, but he cautioned it was too early to say whether the new deal encouraged the migrants to try and cross illegally into the U.S.

“This was a horrific story and there is a proper investigation going on,” Trudeau said. “We need to understand all the facts involved before we draw conclusions, but we do need to make sure we’re doing everything we can … to remain an open and welcoming country with a rigorous and well-applied immigration system that also protects the most vulnerable.”

—Hina Alam, Sidhartha Banerjee and Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press

READ MORE: Migrant death toll rises to 8 after bodies of child, adult found near Quebec/U.S. border





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