Mavis Otuteye’s fatal journey to Canadian border: Loved-ones wonder who was with her before she died

Days before her perilous journey to the Canadian border, Mavis Otuteye did not drop any hint of her plans to the people around her in Delaware.

Not to staff at the , where she regularly delivered her homemade sauces. Not to her friend who took her to get a haircut.

Not even to her cousin, with whom she shared an apartment.

“She didn’t tell me she was going to . She said she was going to Maryland,” Helen Larnyoh told the National Post in a brief phone conversation.

“It is too much for me.”

It wasn’t until last week, when Otuteye’s in Toronto, Peace Lani, called around in a panic if anyone had heard from her mother, that the cloak of secrecy was lifted: Otuteye had set off for Canada to with her , who had just given birth to a baby girl — likely with the intention of staying there.

That panic turned to grief on May 26, when Otuteye’s body was found in a rural drainage ditch near Noyes, Minn., less than a kilometre from the border. Sheriff’s officials said the cause of death appeared to be hypothermia.

Now, compounding the grief are new questions. According to friends and people who have talked to the , Otuteye, 57, was found with only $15 on her and the two cell phones she owned were missing. They can’t help but wonder: who else was with her on the journey?

So far, the Kittson County Sheriff’s Department, the lead investigating agency, has declined to comment on these details or share their theories of what may have happened.

Trevor Hagan/Canadian Press
Trevor Hagan/Canadian PressA sign near the border near Emerson, Manitoba.

It is not certain whether Otuteye, an undocumented immigrant from Ghana, intended to claim once she reached Canada. But at a time when Canada has seen a rise in seekers making the risky journey across the border between official ports of entry, her death has ratcheted up calls by various advocacy groups for Canada to bow out of the Safe Third , which allows border officers to turn away asylum seekers if they come via other “safe” , such as the U.S. The policy does not apply to those who reach Canadian soil-first.

In a statement Friday, a federal immigration spokeswoman said Canada was not budging from its position.

 “The Safe Third Country Agreement is an important tool used by Canada and the U.S. to cooperate on the orderly handling of refugee claims,” the statement said. “‎It’s based on a principle supported by the UN Refugee Agency that individuals must claim asylum in the first country they arrive in.”

Originally from Accra, the capital of Ghana, one of West Africa’s more stable countries with an economy sustained by gold, cocoa and oil, Otuteye landed in Baltimore, Md., in 2003 on a visitor’s visa, said Kris Grogan, a spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection. She remained in the U.S. after her visa expired in 2006, he said.

A few years ago, Otuteye moved from Maryland to Newark, Del., said , who knew her from Ghana. Over the years, she worked as an aide to seniors and also supplied local markets with homemade African foods, he said.

Otuteye’s specialty was shito, a black pepper sauce ubiquitous in Ghanaian cuisine, said Thomas, an employee at the Middletown African Market, who declined to give his last name.

Her roommate, meanwhile, would prepare kenkey, a sourdough dumpling, that is also a Ghanaian food staple.

Otuteye, who last visited the store about three weeks ago, was a “lovely woman” whom Thomas called a “sweetheart.” After delivering her sauce, she would usually sit and the two would banter in his native tongue, Twi.

She was thrilled to be a grandmother, he said.

“She loved her daughter so much,” agreed her friend Tibuah.

The last time Tibuah saw Otuteye was a couple of weeks ago when he took her to get a haircut. She was her usual self, he said. They cracked jokes. He commented on how young she looked.

“It was a shock to me,” he said, when he found out that she had taken off for Canada.

Friends later learned that she had taken a taxi to the airport and then a plane to Minnesota, Thomas said.

One of the last people to speak to her was her niece, Augustina Otuteye. That was on May 25.

“She wasn’t herself. I was asking her, ‘Are you OK?’ She said, ‘I’m fine,’” she told CBC News.

It bothers me a lot. What inspired her to take such a decision?

“She sounded very quiet, but I thought maybe she was tired or not feeling good, so I said, ‘OK, I will call you back later, I will let you rest.’”

When she tried calling her the next day, the phone went to voicemail.

Around the same time, Otuteye’s daughter was also getting worried. She called Larnyoh, her mother’s roommate, in a panic. That’s when Larnyoh learned Otuteye was headed for Canada.

The Kittson County Sheriff’s Department said it received a missing person report on May 25. The following day, Otuteye’s body was found by border agents in a field just west of Highway 75, the main road that leads to the port of entry in Emerson, Man.

“It bothers me a lot,” Thomas said about Otuteye’s decision to cross the border on foot. “What inspired her to take such a decision?”

Otuteye’s daughter is also confused. She knew her mother was coming, but didn’t know exactly how she was going to get into Canada, according to Maggie Yeboah, president of the Ghanaian Union of Manitoba, a non-profit, who spoke to her this week.

Yeboah said Peace Lani learned after her mother’s death that her mother was supposed to cross the border in a vehicle with a man, a scenario that would make more sense because her mother was not the type to travel alone and she also had a bad back.

Peace Lani was told by authorities that her mother was found with only $15 on her, which doesn’t make sense for someone going on such a big journey, Yeboah said.

“She sounded very sad, sort of blaming herself (for having the baby),” Yeboah said. “I told her not to blame herself.”

Thomas said he has also since learned that two cellphones Otuteye owned were missing.

Late Friday, Yeboah shared another intriguing piece of information. A woman from Ghana who had recently crossed the Manitoba border to seek asylum, told Yeboah that last Saturday, she encountered a man in a car in the border town of Gretna, just west of Emerson, who asked if she had seen a woman in her 50s. He was supposed to receive a call from her but never did. He seemed worried. Could it have been the man who dropped Otuteye off near the border? 

As family in Canada and overseas make arrangements for handling Otuteye’s remains, friends can’t help but think about these questions.

“It’s a mystery,” Tibuah said.

About Douglas Quan