Some Quebecers reluctant spectators to human drama playing out after crackdown at Roxham Road
Evelyne Bouchard was playing board games with her family on Saturday afternoon when she saw RCMP vehicles pull into her driveway.
Bouchard is used to the police presence. She owns a farm in Hemmingford, Que., along the U.S. border and just two kilometres away from Roxham Road.
But she says Saturday was out of the ordinary.
As of 12 a.m., police presence increased in the town after access to the illegal crossing was closed — this due to changes to the Safe Third Country Agreement (STCA), which now prevent migrants from claiming asylum after crossing at Roxham Road.
Later that same day, the RCMP came to inform Bouchard that agents were in the woods looking for migrants who crossed into Canada illegally and were on her property.
"A little while later we saw them escorting a family, two adults and two children, to their vehicle … We just saw them walking down the driveway with the agents," said Bouchard, adding that one of the children was so small, they had to be carried.
She said seeing a family of migrants get apprehended first-hand was heartbreaking, even "surreal."
While she and her family were "hanging out" and "eating snacks" just a few hundred metres away, there were "the people whose lives are clearly going through some really tough times."
"The juxtaposition of those two realities is really shocking," said Bouchard.
Although Bouchard says the town has been the backdrop to the drama over immigration over the past few years, she expects to "see more evidence of people struggling," with Roxham Road no longer an option for the migrants seeking safe haven.
"It's just kind of part of living where we do. But it's less common to actually see people being, you know, marched into vehicles like that," said Bouchard.
"We occasionally see footprints or items of clothing that have been dropped in the woods as people are trying to make their way through, and it's just very moving and sad to see that," said Bouchard.
A sense of shame
Bouchard says the community neighbouring the U.S. border is tightly knit, but their opinions diverge when it comes to immigration.
Among her neighbours, some "people somehow feel that closing Roxham is actually going to lead to anything in terms of reducing migration," said Bouchard.
"I think that the one thing that isn't going to change … People who are escaping dire circumstances or who are desperate, will find a way through."
Bouchard used to volunteer at Bridges not Borders, an non-for-profit organization based in Hemmingford, that helped support asylum seekers crossing into Canada via Roxham Road.
As a long-time resident and a parent, she says she often reflects on how fortunate she is, considering the families struggling mere kilometres away.
"We live in this place where we can feel relatively safe and you know, our basic needs are met and our kids can go to school and we can have jobs," she said.
"To be … having people who are in very difficult circumstances passing right through … you can't help but worry about them and how they're doing," said Bouchard.
"I guess [I feel] the sense of shame too, if I'm honest with myself. A sense of shame that we are this well-off, rich country and that this is the welcome mat we're rolling out, that we're just forcing people to trek through the forest with their small children and instead of actually having proper due process for people to claim asylum. That just seems awful."
'We're creating a lucrative market for smugglers'
The border to the U.S. is densely forested, says Bouchard. She says it's part of what will make it dangerous for migrants attempting to cross illegally, perhaps through smugglers or traffickers in the coming weeks and months.
"We're creating a lucrative market for smugglers, which doesn't make me feel much safer," said Bouchard.
"As a Canadian living on the border, I'm not afraid of people who are trying to seek a better life [instead of] crossing regularly. I am much more concerned about people trying to make money off the backs of those vulnerable people."
Advocates in Montreal say the changes to the Safe Third Country Agreement may embolden smugglers.
Ralph Shayne, the protection co-ordinator for the Table de concertation des organismes au service des personnes réfugiées et immigrantes, says "it's a good day for smugglers," but "a bad day for migrants, asylum seekers, human rights, you name it."
Wendy Ayotte, a founding member of Bridges Not Borders, said the changes will make the Canadian border resemble the U.S. southern border, where smugglers escort migrants across dangerous crossing routes, trying to avoid border agents.
"This is what we are going to see in Canada and this is what our country is becoming," she said. "The government has gone down a very tired and dangerous route by trying to turn basically our border into a militarized zone where we are going to see people crossing in very unsafe conditions."
Ayotte was present on Saturday as Roxham Road closed. She said it was one of the most desolate scenes she has witnessed in her five and a half years on the job.
In normal times, living near the border seemed pretty routine for local residents, said Gerald Beaudoin, mayor of Havelock, located near Hemmingford, Que.
"But now all of a sudden, it's a big deal," said Beaudoin.
"You have these people who are clearly disadvantaged and all of a sudden you spring a 24-hour notice on them, clearly unfair to say the least."
'You can never stop people from crossing the border'
Dina Souleiman, the executive director of the Welcome Collective, an organization in Montreal that helps refugee claimants, agrees with those who say the closure of Roxham will do little to dissuade people from trying to enter Canada.
Souleiman says the "gesture of closing a border doesn't actually function to achieve what it hopes to achieve," and that migrants will now increasingly cross between official points of entry.
"You can never stop people from crossing the border," Shayne said. The only difference now, he added, is it will be more difficult to keep track of them when they do.
The modified agreement prevents migrants from claiming asylum in Canada until they have been in the country for 14 days, which provides an incentive, Shayne said, for people to hide out in Canada until the two weeks have passed.
In addition to putting more people at the mercy of smugglers, he said, this could also make it much harder for community organizations to find and help migrants.
"If you ask me, it's added pressure [on community organizations]," Shayne said. "How do you reach those populations?"
Souleiman said the messaging surrounding the changes to the STCA and the closure of Roxham Road was disheartening to the migrants she worked with.
"There's definitely all that sort of negative messaging, you know that they're lesser, that their lives are not important, that we're not taking them seriously," she said.
Bouchard said it's really just the "luck of the draw." She says she empathizes with the migrants, particularly as a parent.
"Your kid just looks to you to know what's going on and for reassurance and just guidance through everything," said Bouchard.
"[I'm] thinking of how incredibly difficult it must be to have had to leave circumstances so dire that you would risk going through the bush to try to go to a new country, into an unknown future with your children, with your young children," she said.
"That's really, really moving. And I worry. I worry about unscrupulous people trying to exploit these people."