| 15 min
Accessible in virtual reality and online
Selections and Awards
Created by Michel Huneault, with Maude Thibodeau and Chantal Dumas, produced by the NFB, in collaboration with Le Devoir, Phi and Dpt.
– Stop! If you walk further, you’ll be arrested.
– I know; I am really sorry. You have to help us; we are entering.
In early 2017, the number of asylum seekers arriving at Roxham Road sharply increased. This quiet and practically unknown road between the United States and Canada became the location with the largest number of irregular border crossings in the country.
The Roxham experience takes us to the moments when Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) officers intercept these individuals in exchanges that are as regulated as they are tense.
Documenting 180 border-crossing attempts over a period of 16 days between February and August 2017, Michel Huneault captured the stories of these individuals in images and sound, and now he is sharing them through a virtual reality project created in collaboration with interactive designer Maude Thibodeau (Dpt.) and sound designer Chantal Dumas.
In the photographs, the asylum seekers are shown in silhouette. Composite images of various fabrics shield their identity, preserving their anonymity. These textures come from another photo series Huneault made during the 2015 European migrant crisis. Alluding to both protection and comfort, these textiles serve as a reminder that the two situations are part of the same larger story.
At Roxham Road—just like in the immersive experience—the border is invisible, and the confusion is palpable. The language barrier is magnified; emotions run high. Migration, an exceedingly personal decision, has been thrust to the forefront of public and political debates. Roxham Road is quickly becoming symbolic: it embodies the tensions between the international responsibility to welcome others and the duty to protect a national territory.
In this seven-part experience, the 10-metre-wide Roxham Road becomes a microcosm of the world’s crises, offering a personal glimpse into the confusing quest for a safe place.
This immersive story centres on Roxham Road, a small section of the border where people are arrested and welcomed at the same time. Photographer Michel Huneault documented border interceptions of asylum seekers moving from the United States to Canada and their confusing quest for a safe place.
Glossary: Words matter. So which ones should be used?
– Stop! If you walk further, you’ll be arrested.
– I know; I am really sorry. You have to help us; we are entering.
Roxham Road is the location with the largest number of irregular border crossings by asylum seekers moving from the United States to Canada. On this otherwise calm rural section of the border, the number of arrivals climbed sharply throughout 2017.
There I documented 180 attempted border crossings over 16 days between February and August 2017. The people I saw had come from more than 20 countries: Eritrea, Sudan, Syria, Pakistan, Colombia, Turkey, Yemen, Guatemala, Haiti, El Salvador, Chad, the Philippines, Nigeria, Burundi, and several others. Roxham is a true microcosm of today’s crises and conflicts. A worldwide migratory movement comes toward us there, periodically prompted by the politics of the Trump administration.
On my first day at Roxham, a young, pregnant Nigerian woman approached the border with her suitcases. When the RCMP officers warned her not to cross the border, she froze with her feet sinking into the snow-covered ditch. She hesitated, crying. She begged to be allowed to enter Canada. Minutes passed, and then an American officer arrived on the other side of the border. He picked her up, and she disappeared. It was my first time seeing someone attempt to cross the border, and it shook me.
From that first day, I wondered how to document this historical moment without putting the vulnerable asylum seekers further at risk. I decided to mask their silhouettes using fabric I photographed in other places during the 2015 European migrant crisis—images of blankets in Hungary, clean clothing offered to migrants in Austria, or details of tents set up for migrants in Germany. Using this fabric protected their identity and reminded me that this too was part of the same story.
Roxham Road is quickly becoming symbolic. This intensely personal moment—when people choose to change their life by crossing an invisible line—is also, essentially, a public moment with political and legal debates surrounding it. Yet, these people aren’t “illegal,” and neither is their border crossing. In 1951, Canada signed a convention to welcome all people who present themselves to authorities seeking asylum, no matter where they arrive. Thus, this crossing is irregular but not illegal, and these individuals are asylum seekers—completely legal.
Nevertheless, during this brief moment, the international responsibility of welcoming asylum seekers clashes with the duty to protect a national territory. Confusion reigns, and the tension is palpable. Language is a barrier in itself; emotions run high.
At Roxham, standing on the edge of the border, a changing world comes toward us.
Montreal, March 2018
Migrant, Refugee or Asylum Seeker
Migrant: A general, imprecise term used for any person who has left his or her habitual place of residence, regardless of the reasons for the movement, whether or not it is voluntary, or the person’s legal status.
Asylum Seeker: A person who is seeking the legal status of a refugee but who has not yet received it. As long as the refugee claim is in process, the individual is called an asylum seeker, a synonym of refugee claimant.
Refugee: A person who has fled his or her home country and has received the protection of another country due to the fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.
The 1951 Refugee Convention’s definition of a refugee is included in Canadian law.
“An Illegal” or “Illegal Migrant”
Only an act can be illegal, not an individual. A person may commit an illegal act, but that does not make the person illegal.
“For example, a person who has not paid his or her taxes on time, or in full, is not usually described as an illegal taxpayer,” writes Louise Arbour, United Nations Special Representative for International Migration.
This follows the same reasoning: A person cannot be irregular. It’s the way in which the individual enters the country that is irregular—the crossing is irregular.
A person can be “without status,” but only after the individual’s asylum claim has been refused and he or she has exhausted all possibilities of recourse. Thus, the people photographed by Michel Huneault are not “without status,” but rather “asylum seekers.”
“Illegal” Border Crossing or “Illegal” Entry
These border crossings are irregular but legal. The 1951 Refugee Convention, signed by Canada, specifies that people who seek asylum will not be criminally punished.
In the Roxham experience, you will hear the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) say that it is “illegal” to cross. They give this warning before the person crosses the border and requests asylum.
In short: The border crossing is “irregular” but not illegal, and the individual is a completely legal asylum seeker.
Why Are People Crossing at Roxham Instead of at an Official Border Checkpoint?
The convergence of three important responsibilities on the part of Canada leaves very few options to people who want to cross.
1. The Sovereignty of a National Territory. The authority—the exclusive jurisdiction—of a State over its territory authorizes it to protect its borders.
2. A Commitment to Welcome. The 1951 Refugee Convention on the protection of refugees, signed by Canada, states that people who seek asylum will not be subject to criminal punishment.
3. Safe Third Country Agreement. Signed with the United States, this agreement came into effect in 2004. The principle is simple: A person makes an asylum claim in the country where he or she arrives first. An asylum seeker who had first arrived in the United States would be turned away at the Saint-Bernard-de-Lacolle Border Crossing Station in Quebec, for example. This rule applies only to those who make a claim at a border station. It does not apply to a person who crosses at an irregular point of entry.
Arrest Versus Interception
The RCMP officers do indeed arrest asylum seekers, since they are responsible for border security. However, no charge is made against those who cross the border, since they are asking for asylum (Article 31 of the 1951 Refugee Convention).
These “arrests” are counted as “interceptions” in the RCMP statistics.
Roxham runs in WebVR on Oculus Rift and HTC Vive through your browser, as well as on Samsung Gear VR. The project is also accessible online (2D) through all mobile devices and computers.
Why WebVR in general:
We support the open and democratic web being a public institution funded by the public. We believe that open web standards allow everyone to enjoy our content and be able to create content as well to express themselves. WebVR is a great example of how we can innovate what the web can do and still keep this progress accessible to everyone.
Photo : Joannie Lafrenière
In his practice, Michel Huneault combines documentary photography and contemporary visual art. Committed to a personal, humanist approach, he brings together still images and immersive elements in his work.
Before devoting himself to photography full-time in 2008, he worked in international development for more than a decade. That career took him to more than 20 countries, including Afghanistan, where he spent an entire year in Kandahar. Michel has a master’s degree in Latin American studies from the University of California Berkeley, where he was a Rotary Peace Fellow studying the role of collective memory after large-scale traumatic events. He studied under and assisted Magnum photographer Gilles Peress at Berkeley and in New York City.
Michel Huneault’s interest in development, trauma, migration and other geographically complex realities remains strong today. He develops his projects in chapters over a period of several years, presenting them through complementary platforms ranging from traditional media to contemporary art spaces.
His long-term project on the Lac-Mégantic train disaster won the 2015 Dorothea Lange-Paul Taylor Prize and was published the following year by Schilt Publishing in a book titled The Long Night of Mégantic. In 2016, the R. James Travers Foreign Corresponding Fellowship enabled him to deepen his research on migratory issues. The same year, his project Post Tohoku, on the effects of the tsunami in Japan, was nominated for a Prix Pictet 7 and received a Prix Antoine-Désilets. His work has been presented in Japan, the United States, Canada and Switzerland. Michel Huneault lives in Montreal and has received grants from the Canada Council for the Arts and the Conseil des arts et des lettres du Québec.
Photo : Anouk Lessard, L'Éloi
Maude Thibodeau studied fashion at Cégep Marie-Victorin and graphic design at Université du Québec à Montréal before going on to a successful career as an art director and designer. For the last 10 years, she has been immersed in the world of interactive media, working for Urbania (Fort McMoney, Tamy@UK, urbania.ca) and Sid Lee, while also collaborating on independent projects such as #TamyUSA, Beauté fatale, and Face à la rue. She is currently at Dpt. (The Enemy, Testimony, Roxham), where she continues to create content-rich interactive experiences, from virtual reality installations to engaging websites.
Photo : Pamela Gallant
Chantal Dumas studied music and interactive media. She loves sound, talks about sound, and makes sound. Sound connects us to one another. It’s the taut string that vibrates on all frequencies. Her personal projects have led her into the worlds of radio, sound installation, electroacoustic music, audio art, and travel. Her professional collaborations are in the fields of literature, poetry, visual arts, cinema, sound design, and dance. She loves listening to cities and to nature, both alone and with others, and is a fan of any wide-open or urban space where she can hold out a microphone. Her work has been broadcast on radio internationally (ABC, BBC, Deutschlandradio Kultur, etc.) and has won awards including the Opus (Quebec), Phonurgia Nova (France) and Bohemia Radio (République tchèque) prizes.
Producer & Executive Producer
After several years of twisting letters as well as ideas by studying philosophy, literature and death metal, Hugues Sweeney became interested in stories as much as the opportunities that technology offers to tell them. First in new media at Radio-Canada, then head of Bande à part and Espace musique, he joined the National Film Board of Canada in 2009 as executive producer dedicated to interactive works. Continuing experimentation both in the grammar of interaction, in sound creation or in generative art, projects from the interactive studio of the NFB has received numerous international awards including SXSW, Japan Media Arts, Boomerang, FIPA d’or and nominations for the Digital Emmy, IDFA, Gemini or the Gémeaux.
Created by Michel Huneault,
with Maude Thibodeau
and Chantal Dumas, produced by the NFB,
in collaboration with Le Devoir, Phi and Dpt.
Original Idea, Ideation, Photography,
Sound Recording, Text and Narration
Sound Design and Audio Mix
Ideation and Experience Design
Nicolas S. Roy
Social Media Strategist
Web Content Project Manager
English Translation and Revision
Sarah R. Champagne
Dpt. is a digital studio crafting award-winning immersive and narrative experiences. We conceptualize, design and build content-driven work for brands and museums as well as for the entertainment, film and education industries.
About the NFB
The National Film Board of Canada (NFB) is one of the world’s leading digital content hubs, creating groundbreaking interactive documentaries and animation, mobile content, installations and participatory experiences. NFB interactive productions and digital platforms have won over 100 awards, including 21 Webbys. To access this unique content, visit NFB.ca.