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Justice (25-42)

Dawn Walker, First Nations woman accused of fleeing with child, to argue she was trying to escape alleged abuse

April 24, 2023
Dawn Walker leaves her bail hearing at Saskatoon Provincial Court on Sept. 2, 2022. She is accused of faking her death and that of a child before illegally crossing the border into the United States.LIAM RICHARDS/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The Globe and Mail: A First Nations author and former political candidate accused of faking her death and fleeing to the United States with her child will argue at her criminal trial that she did so out of necessity to protect her child from alleged abuse when the authorities would not.

The details of Dawn Walker’s planned defence are laid out in a recent Saskatchewan court filing as her lawyer seeks records from police and government agencies. The application alleges the records will show that repeated attempts by Ms. Walker to seek help from the authorities were dismissed.

In her first public interview since her arrest, Ms. Walker told The Globe and Mail that she did what she did out of desperation. After trying and failing to get help from police, she said in a video call that, “I just didn’t see any way. I looked at my life, and … yeah, I just didn’t really see a lot of options. “I couldn’t talk to anyone about it,” she continued. “So I didn’t really know how to plan to leave or anything. I did my best.”

Ms. Walker’s ex-partner has denied the allegations of abuse, and has not faced any charges. Ms. Walker’s trial, which will be heard by a judge alone, is scheduled to begin in November. In an e-mail, Sean Sinclair, a family lawyer for Ms. Walker’s ex-partner, said “my client stands by his prior statement that he did not abuse Ms. Walker or his child. In light of the court proceedings and to protect his child from media exposure, my client does not wish to make any further statements.”

Her lawyer, Marie Henein , told The Globe: “Dawn is a celebrated Indigenous woman with a platform who repeatedly sought the protection of the justice system. “She hired lawyers. She repeatedly went to the police. To court. So ask yourself: What would it take for a mother like her to feel she had to do what she did?” In the filing, Ms. Henein argues that the province’s failure to protect Indigenous women from domestic and intimate partner abuse is directly related to the charges Ms. Walker faces.

Ms. Walker, who was an executive with the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations and former federal Liberal Party candidate, is facing a slew of charges including public mischief and parental abduction in contravention of a custody order, after her two-week disappearance last summer.

The disappearance prompted a search that involved air, land and water crews, with investigators focusing their search on the South Saskatchewan River. Ms. Walker’s pickup truck and some personal belongings were discovered by a riverbank about a 20-minute drive south of Saskatoon, where she lived and had been reported missing July 24.

Ms. Walker and her child were tracked to Oregon City two weeks later, where prosecutors allege she was staying at short-term rentals under a false identity. Ms. Walker was taken into custody upon her arrest in early August, and her child was shuttled back to Canada, to her ex-partner. A publication ban shielding the identity of the child only permits Ms. Walker to be named.

Ms. Walker was sent back to Canada in August and has been on bail for the past seven months, living with her sister in Saskatoon. As she awaits trial, she must wear an ankle bracelet, and has been granted only supervised visits and calls with her child, as part of a court order. Now, as her case moves through the courts, she said that being separated from her child is her “worst nightmare come true.”

According to the court filing, she had gone to both Saskatoon Police and the RCMP with allegations of past sexual assaults by her ex, but no charges were laid. She also sought a peace bond, but was denied assistance, the court filing says. The document alleges that concerns reported to the Ministry of Social Services about her child went similarly unaddressed.

“After her unsuccessful attempts to seek help from three police detachments, family court, lawyers, therapists, and the Ministry of Social Services, Ms. Walker concluded that no authority would address her ex-partner’s abuse,” the document says. “Any further attempts would be futile.”

In order to prove a defence of necessity, an accused person must demonstrate that they first attempted lawful means of seeking help before taking matters into their own hands. “As these records demonstrate, Ms. Walker repeatedly did just that,” the court filing says. “Ms. Walker repeatedly sought legal avenues of help in relation to her ex-partner’s abuse of her and suspected abuse of her child. She did not eschew legitimate avenues of assistance. Yet each time Ms. Walker sought help, these authorities rebuffed her.”

By the time she decided to flee, the filing argues, “she reasonably did not believe that the authorities would help her any more than they had in the past. Self-help felt like the only option.”

Ms. Walker’s legal team is also seeking records that they say will establish violations of her Charter rights after her arrest, which the filing argues is part of a pattern of the Saskatchewan government’s mistreatment of incarcerated Indigenous women. Because of those violations, Ms. Walker is seeking a stay of her charges. The application seeks records from a number of parties including Saskatoon Police; the RCMP; the British Columbia Immigration Holding Centre; and various provincial government ministries in Saskatchewan.

The Charter violations, Ms. Henein argues in the court documents, began after Ms. Walker was transported back to Canada, while she was being held in “shocking conditions” at the Saskatoon Police headquarters, which included “being forced into a cell with no privacy to use the toilet, and being strip searched no less than three times until her successful bail hearing.”

When Ms. Walker was eventually transferred to Pine Grove Correctional Centre, her legal team alleges she experienced further Charter violations, including being refused medical care, for panic attacks she was experiencing.“Ms. Walker intends to establish that her case is an extreme example of how the police and justice system in Saskatchewan not only neglect Indigenous women who experience domestic and sexual violence, but go on to criminalize and incarcerate those same Indigenous women, as well as systemically violate their constitutional rights,” the filing reads.

Ms. Henein said that she believes this case belongs in family court, not criminal. “It’s troubling for me to see the amount of resources that’s being put into this prosecution,” Ms. Henein said.

MOLLY HAYES, National Reporter

ROBYN DOOLITTLE, Investigative Team