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Family of Four Found Frozen

By Kamal Dhillon

i can’t seem to blot out
the image of a baby
at the border


tiny body
brown skin
crossed an ocean to 
arrive here


same ocean as my parents
my family


what did he see when he arrived?

vast blue prairie skies
never-ending horizon of white ice

so different than his life back home

he must have been so cold

the headlines keep flashing
in my mind
a flickering light

family of four found frozen

i think they left out:

how did they get here? why did they leave
warmth and spices?
a place i’ve never known
but think about so often

a place where they 

my parents left that same place, so many years ago


i think i know why:
a better life


but is that always possible?
what if, instead of ice and snow,
you end up stranded on a shore


passengers aboard a ship
turned away, turned around
invisible line
visible ink on pages
keeping you out 


this is not a safe place for us;
we’ve known for a while…


so why come anyway? 




his family looks like my family


who is responsible? 


indians from india


you should know better
those of us who made it
we could have told you


don’t you know it’s cold?
         don’t you know it’s dangerous?


why take the risk? 

i think i know.

Eight people in winter landscape
Front row: Meeta, Balwinder, Pardeep, Harvinder, Kuldip
Back row: Sardara Singh, Karnial Kaur, Manjit

This is a photo of my mother, Balwinder Dhillon, with her parents and siblings taken on December 18, 1977, their second day in Canada. They had arrived in Canada the previous day and it was the first time any of them had seen snow (alas, they were woefully unprepared without adequate winter clothing). My mom’s eldest sister, Satwinder, was back in India; she could not immigrate with the family at this time as she was over 21 years old and no longer considered a dependent. Restrictions on family sponsorship meant that she had to be sponsored separately.

Author's Statement

When I first heard the news about the Patel family, discovered frozen and unresponsive at the border between Canada and the United States in Emerson, Manitoba on January 19, 2022, my heart sank. My first thought went to the children and how scared they must have been. I still have not been able to let go of my sadness when I imagine how traumatic their final hours were. Their faces, revealed by a family photo a week after their deaths, are imprinted in my mind. 

I could not help but make comparisons between my own family’s journey from India forty years earlier and that of the Patel family only a few months ago. I started asking myself questions that have no clear answer: how and why do some migrant families fulfill their journey to Canada, while others do not? At what cost, personal and collective, do migrants successfully assimilate or integrate? How do we, the diaspora and succeeding generations, remember (or forget) those who came before us to paveliterally and metaphoricallythe way for us to make a life in Canada? 

There are many concrete differences between my family’s and the Patels’ situations. I must be careful not to collapse these differences even if I identify with the Patels and we have shared experiences. Rather, it is my hope that my poem, in which I try to capture my emotional response to this tragic event, conveys a sense of connection to the immigrant experience in a way that does not equivocate or minimize the specifics of the Patel family’s circumstances and what they endured.  

In “Between Hope and Despair: The Pedagogical Encounter of Historical Remembrance,” cultural theorists Roger Simon, Sharon Rosenberg and Claudia Eppert assert that remembering the past is an ongoing act of critical engagement that requires challenging hegemonic memory narratives and unsettling the assumption that traces of the past do not exist in the present. To practice “remembrance as a difficult return,” they say we must endeavour to “bring forth into presence specific people and events of the past in order to honour their names and to hold a place for their absent presence in one’s contemporary life” (4). I did not know the Patel family, but I feel a profound sense of sadness for and familiarity with their loss. In writing this piece, it is my hope that in some small way I am meeting the challenge of living “in relation with the past” (4; emphasis added) as well as remembering the sacrifices of my own immigrant family and so many others, without relying on the “consolatory assurance” that things will get better (4-5). 

The Patel family’s story undoubtedly lifts the lid on several challenging issues that implicate Canada: forced emigration, human trafficking, irregular migration, and global instability to name a few. Rather than ignoring or pushing aside the discomfort that comes with confronting these dark realities, I choose to embrace this unsettled feeling that tells me that things are not right, and that I must continually challenge, question, critique, and rework notions of equity and security in Canadian society. Their vulnerability and indeterminate outsider/insider status calls into question the integrity of the Canadian immigration system, a system that purports to be accessible yet iron-clad, benevolent yet utilitarian, tolerant yet rule-bound. Who are we letting in, and who are we trying to keep out?  

My intention with this poem was also to challenge the hegemonic narrative of multicultural inclusivity in Canada. I did this by positioning myself and my family’s immigration history in contrast with that of the Patel family and the event of the Komagata Maru in which 376 Indian nationals were expelled from Canadian shores over 100 years ago. At that time, an amendment to the Immigration Act (1908), titled the Continuous Journey Regulation, allowed the Canadian government to prohibit any immigrant from landing in Canada that did not arrive by continuous journey, an impossible task for migrants arriving from India and other Asian countries. This regulation was specifically designed to vet out “undesirable” migrants who did not meet White Canada’s carefully scripted criteria for citizenship. As pointed out in Ali Kazimi’s 2004 documentary Continuous Journey, it was also a clever and insidious solution to Canada’s inability to outwardly ban Indian migrants who, as British subjects, were entitled to immigrate and claim citizenship in other imperial colonies. 

In their book Unmooring the Komagata Maru: Charting Colonial Trajectories, Rita Dhamoon and Davina Bhandar (2019) observe that the Komagata Maru’s journey and its subsequent expulsion from Canada brings into sharp focus the ways in which a network of global colonialism cooperated to “extend ruling logics of white supremacy and hierarchies of racism” in Canada and abroad (4). Although it is true that Canada has witnessed an expanded idea of citizenship, democracy, and inclusion in the past century, Dhamoon and Bhandar argue that contemporary colonial formations and regimes of power continue to exert themselves on travellers, involuntarily forming “itinerant subjects” whose political identities are formed through their movements (15). The itinerant subject is often caught in the crossfire of “multiple nationalisms” which can work together to justify the exclusion, dispossession, and displacement of migrants and render their journeys dangerous and unpredictable (16). In short, the global colonial forces that succeeded in turning away the Komagata Maru continue to shape the subjectivity of predominantly nonwhite migrants and refugees and make possible the circumstances in which the Patel family found themselves. 

There is a line in Continuous Journey that references the Komagata Maru and its enduring relevance in regards to Canada’s immigration history and the impact this history continues to have on naturalized citizens as well as second and third generation immigrants. Narrating over a shot of the Burrard Inlet harbour, Kazimi proclaims that it is here that “the history of India and Canada violently collide. … I see this harbour as a crime scene, haunted by its ghosts. Maybe I’m trying to find out how I fit in.” This idea rooted itself in my mind the more I thought about the Patel family, caught in a collision of borders, laws, and history in a foreign land, haunted, I am sure, by memories of their home and loved ones, by the decisions that were made that led to them being trapped by the cold, dark night. Like the majority of the passengers on board the ship, the Patels were not only unable to find safety here in Canada, but they were also unable to return safely home. 

The Patel family were not the first, and they will not be the last to arrive in this place with the promise of a new life burning in their hearts. In learning of their deaths, we must bear witness to this violent history and consider ourselves implicated in its consequences. I believe it is possible to mourn their loss, allow it to unsettle our frame of reference, and then work towards a critical understanding of the problem and the circumstances that allowed such an event to happen in the first place. 

Works Cited

Bhandar, Davina and Rita Dhamoon. “Introduction: Unmooring the Komagata Maru.” Unmooring the Komagata Maru: Charting Colonial Trajectories, edited by Rita Dhamoon, Davina Bhandar, Renisa Mawani and Satwinder Kaur Bains. UBC Press, 2019, pp. 3-32.

Kazimi, Ali (Dir). Continuous Journey. Peripheral Visions Film & Video Inc. TVO, 2004. Uploaded to Vimeo by Ali Kazimi https://vimeo.com/96108369.

Simon, Roger I., Sharon Rosenberg, and Claudia Eppert. “Introduction: Between Hope and Despair: The Pedagogical Encounter of Historical Remembrance.” Between Hope and Despair: Pedagogy and the Representation of Historical Trauma, edited by Roger I. Simon, Sharon Rosenberg, and Claudia Eppert. Rowman & Littlefield, 2000, pp. 1-8.

Unger, Danton. “Family of four found frozen to death near Canada-U.S. border identified; RCMP investigation continues.” CTV News, 27 January 2022, https://winnipeg.ctvnews.ca/family-of-four-found-frozen-to-death-near-canada-u-s-    border-identified-rcmp-investigation-continues-1.5757107. Accessed 29 Jan 2022.