When I heard about asylum seekers crossing the border at Emerson, Manitoba with frozen fingers I was reminded of what I witnessed on a bitterly cold day last November. I grew up in rural Manitoba and now live in Bemidji, Minnesota. The community is four-and-half hours southeast of Winnipeg. I cross the border about once a month to see family and friends.
Last fall while crossing at Emerson, I saw a lady wandering in the 200 yards of “no-man’s land” between the Canadian and American customs posts. She had a toddler and an infant. All they had were the clothes they were wearing and a My Little Pony suitcase on wheels.
I rolled down the window of my truck and asked if she needed help. She was from Djibouti, East Africa and spoke some French but very little English. The woman was agitated, the baby was crying and the little boy appeared frightened. All she could say was: “Go to Canada. Help.” She was pleading. I got out of my truck, picked up the toddler and started to walk with her to Canada Customs.
Maybe it was a stupid thing to do, but I was furious. Everybody could see this poor woman but nobody was helping. As we approached the checkpoint, two men came out of the U.S. Customs building and told me to put down the child, get back in my truck and go on my way. I was amazed. I felt helpless. I did what I was told.
When I drove up to the window, I questioned the agents. Why was that woman wandering with no help in sight? “Is she going to be okay?” They told me not to concern myself. That was it. I was upset and very suspicious at the time, but all is clear to me today and it makes my blood boil. It is likely that woman from Djibouti was an asylum-seeker heading for the Canada side where there was somebody coming to get her.
I never thought at this point in my life I’d be so worried about politics. Politics wasn’t a major topic of discussion in my hometown in rural Manitoba. Our neighbours were Conservatives, Liberals and New Democrats, and nobody cared. Now I live in a hotly divided American state.
Minnesota went 50-50 in the last U.S. president election, and people are so polarized. Neighbours where I live tell me terrorists are coming across the northern border from Canada. There is fear mongering. We hear stories of people having cell phones confiscated by customs agents and scanned for content. I worry that even telling this story could draw retribution next time I approach “no-man’s land”. Most of all, I fear these changes in our world may be irreversible.
(Editor’s note: the author is a former Manitoban whose commentary was originally published February 19, 2017. The author requested anonymity for fear of reprisal)