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Family of Indian migrants who died in Quebec shocked by river crossing attempt

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An Indian national who died with his family last week when a boat capsized in the St. Lawrence River during an attempt to enter the United States was "mortally afraid of water," says his cousin.

Pravinbhai Chaudhari, 49, was found in a marshy area in Akwesasne, Que., with his wife Dakshaben, 45, their 23-year-old daughter Vidhi, and their 20-year-old son Meet. A couple of Romanian descent and their two Canadian-born children, aged one and two, also died during the failed March 29 crossing.

"He would never sit in a boat," Jasubhai Chaudhari said of his cousin. "I don't understand. How did he sit in that boat? He was very afraid of the water."

Chaudhari said in a phone interview that he and other family and friends held special evening prayers on Thursday at his home in Gujarat for his deceased cousins.

He said he won't be able to come to Canada to perform last rites for the family and hopes the Gujarati community in the area will undertake the ritual.

A search of waterways for a missing Akwesasne man linked to the eight migrants was suspended Thursday.

The Akwesasne Mohawk Police said in a news release they believe they have exhausted their search efforts around the community 130 kilometres southwest of Montreal.

Casey Oakes, 30, was last seen on the night of March 29 operating a boat that was found next to the bodies of the two migrant families.

Police have said the families were trying to cross illegally into the United States through the Mohawk territory, which straddles provincial and international boundaries and includes parts of Quebec, Ontario and New York state.

Halfway across the world in India, Chaudhari said relatives are in shock. He last spoke with his cousin two to three weeks ago when the family was in Toronto, he said.

"He was very happy in Toronto," Chaudhari said. "He would send us photos and videos from Toronto that we'd see."

He described his cousins as "well-travelled," having visited London and Thailand a few years ago.

Pravinbhai Chaudhari was a farmer who owned about 1.2 hectares of land on which he mostly grew cotton and castor bean. He also owned a transportation business that he shut down about six months ago, his cousin said.

But his cousin didn't share their plans, if they had any, of going to the United States, Chaudhari said.

"All he told me was that he was going to visit Canada," he said.

"We don't know if that family went in that boat to cross to the U.S. or just for a ride. We have absolutely no idea. He never told us that he was going to America."

He said he was especially heartbroken about his niece, Vidhi Chaudhari, who he said had recently graduated with a master’s degree in business management and had high-paying job offers in India.

"She had no need of going to any other country for a good life," he said. “Vidhi had so many dreams. She had her whole life ahead of her. She was so smart."

He recalled a family trip from about five years ago to the temple city of Dwarka on the western shores of Gujarat.

"Praveen refused to get into a boat then, saying 'I am very scared of the water.' To think he got into that boat,'" Chaudhari said, his voice trailing.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 7, 2023. 

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