The first ominous signs that acclaimed Canadian author and comedienne Dawn Dumont Walker might be in trouble were found along the banks of the South Saskatchewan River in Chief Whitecap Park.
A park visitor spotted an abandoned purse with Walker’s identification and vehicle keys, a crumpled blanket and a broken fishing rod near the water’s edge on July 23 and turned them over to authorities.
Two days later, when Walker failed to appear for a conference, she was reported missing with her 7-year-old son and a massive search began with underwater divers, helicopters, volunteers and tracking dogs.
Authorities found her abandoned truck but no evidence of the mother and son, and all signs indicated they had fallen into the river and been carried away by the current.
Now, however, authorities say it was all a hoax, part of a plan by Walker to flee Canada with her son in the midst of a contentious custody dispute. She and her son were found in Oregon in early August and Walker was arrested. She now faces criminal charges in the United States and Canada.
“The defendant kidnapped her own child and fled to the United States,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Scott M. Kerin in Oregon said in U.S. court documents. “The elaborate scheme she engaged in was designed for one purpose – to avoid the law and not be found … Her efforts were both criminal and traumatic for the family members who suffered from her scheme.”
Walker, who has been held without bail in Oregon, is being extradited back to Canada to face charges there. Her son has since been returned to his father, Andrew Jansen, in Canada.
In a statement released Aug. 9, Walker said she left Saskatoon because she feared for her safety and that of her son under a system that she said has a history of racism against Indigenous people, particularly women.
“I was failed by the Saskatchewan justice system, the family law system and child protection,” she said in a statement released to CBC News. “I am fighting systems that continuously fail to protect me as an Indigenous woman and protect non-Indigenous men. This does not surprise me. Saskatchewan and the systems within have failed indigenous people since colonization.”She also spoke to the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, which had been linked to her disappearance on social media and with a July 28 walk organized by the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations.
“For all the missing and murdered Indigenous woman I have a story to tell and wish to return to Canada to tell it,” Walker said. “I didn’t mean to hurt you, my friends and family and the other women who cannot obtain justice anywhere we turn. So many women and children before us have had to run for their lives to protect their children.”
Award-winning author and comedienne
It’s not the sort of publicity Walker is used to getting.
For the past six years, Walker, a citizen of the Okanese First Nation, has served as executive operating officer for the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations, which represents 75 First Nations in the province of Saskatchewan and is one of the most powerful Indigenous organizations in Canada.
She holds a law degree from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, and ran unsuccessfully in 2021 as a candidate for the Liberal Party to represent the Saskatoon-University riding, or district.
She is perhaps best known across Canada, however, as Dawn Dumont, an award-winning author and performer who has appeared as a co-host of APTN’s popular “Fish Out of Water” series and as a writer for the animated APTN program, “By the Rapids.”
She’s a stand-up comedienne who has taken her routine to such iconic stages as The Improv and The Comedy Store.
And she’s written four books, with her latest, “The Prairie Chicken Dance Tour,” released this year, earning her a spot as a finalist for one of the most prestigious and coveted awards in Canadian comedy — the Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour — shortly after she disappeared.
The book has drawn rave reviews.
“Dumont’s talent for comedy shines in a great deal of snappy, wry wit,” according to a review in Canada’s top literary magazine, Quill & Quire.
"One of the best antidotes to racism on bookshelves to date,” wrote the St. Albert Gazette.
Her previous books include “Nobody Cries at Bingo,” (2011), which was translated into French, “On pleure pas au bingo,” (2019); “Rose’s Run,” (2014), which won the Saskatchewan Book Award for Fiction in 2015; and “Glass Beads,” (2017), a collection of short stories that won the Saskatchewan Book Award.
She was not hurting financially at the time she disappeared. Federal authorities in the United States reported in court documents that she had several bank accounts with total balances in late July of more than $100,000, including a newly created account for a company known as Wapan Consulting, named for a Cree word for “early morning” or “dawn.”
‘An elaborate ruse’
Authorities say Walker began plotting her disappearance as early as April, when a friend and coworker realized someone had stolen her identification papers – a Saskatchewan driver’s license and Indian and Northern Affairs Canada Certificate of Indian Status card.
On May 16, a woman believed to be Walker set up a bank account in the friend’s name. Two weeks later, $77,000 in checks from Wapan Consulting was deposited into the account.
The friend, who is not identified in federal court records but who told authorities her son played with Walker’s son, told authorities she was unaware the account had been set up.
On Friday, July 22, Walker picked up her son for the weekend from the boy’s father as part of a court-ordered agreement reached in the custody dispute.
On July 23, the day her belongings were found along the river, Walker is believed to have entered the United States about 9:15 a.m. using the identification stolen from her friend and presenting a falsified passport for her son in the name of the friend’s son, according to court documents.
Charges began appearing on the bank account starting July 25 for Airbnb rentals, food, gas, hotels and Netflix, showing her path from Butte, Montana, near the Canadian border, and continuing to Billings, Montana, then Spokane, Washington, and on to Umatilla, Rufus and Oregon City, Oregon, records show.
On Aug. 4, Canadian authorities notified U.S. Homeland Security in Oregon that Walker appeared to be staying at an Airbnb in Oregon City. Local Homeland Security officials set up surveillance on the location and arrested her just before 10 a.m. on Aug. 5 as she tried to drive away in a blue Chevy Equinox that was registered to her friend in Canada. The friend said she had no knowledge of the vehicle and did not own it..
“I asked Walker to tell me her name and not to lie to me,” Homeland Security Special Agent Clinton Lindsly said in a sworn statement submitted to the court. “Walker immediately stated, ‘Dawn Walker.’”
Lindsly continued, “I also told Walker that people presumed that she and her son died in the river, to which she spontaneously noted, ‘He doesn’t want to be with his father.’”
A search of the vehicle revealed a cell phone, a “large amount of Canadian currency,” prepaid Visa cards, a debit card to the new bank account, the driver’s license and Indian Status card in the friend’s name, and vehicle registration documents for the Equinox, also in the friend’s name.
The agent also found a large, plastic binder with numerous documents and handwritten notes, including what appeared to be two “check lists” of things to do for staging the disappearances.
Among the items on the to-do lists were instructions to dye hair, cover tattoo, park car, buy fishing rod, throw cellphone into the river and “find nearest border.” Walker has what officials described as a “distinct” tattoo on the web of her hand, according to court records.
The Oregon Department of Human Services took custody of the child, who had been left inside the Airbnb, and he was returned to his father later that day, court records state. They returned to Canada on Aug. 7.
Walker remains in the custody of the U.S. Marshal’s Service and has received a court-appointed lawyer, Assistant Federal Public Defender Megha Desai. The Public Defender’s Office declined to comment about the case.
U.S. prosecutors convinced the magistrate judge that Walker should be detained until her case is resolved.
“The defendant went to extreme efforts to steal identities for her and her son that allowed them to unlawfully enter the United States and hide; she hid and funneled assets to accounts to fund her flight from the law; and, she thoughtfully planned and engaged in an elaborate ruse in which she faked her death and that of her son,” prosecutors argued in court records.
At a press conference on Aug. 8, Saskatoon Police Deputy Chief Randy Huisman credited cross-border support from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the Oregon City Police Department, the Billings Police Department and the West Linn Police Department with helping find the missing pair.
Walker has been charged in Canada with parental abduction in contravention of a custody order and public mischief, and Huisman said she could face additional charges.
“Although the missing person investigation is winding down, the criminal investigation is in its early stages,” Huisman said. “As the criminal investigation progresses there may be further charges that Miss Walker will face as a result.”
Reactions to the discovery were swift.
The Jansen family posted a statement to their findvinnie.ca website after the Walker and her son, Vincent, were found in Oregon.
“When we found out they were both safe there was sobbing, laughing, dancing, shouting, throwing of shoes and hugging,” according to the statement. “Even though we weren’t together, the family celebrated together. It feels as though we can finally breathe.”
The Jansen family set up a GoFundMe campaign that had raised $46,655 when it closed on Aug. 5, including an offer of a $10,000 reward for information leading to discovery of the mother and son. The campaign said that Andrew Jansen would work with law enforcement about paying out the reward and would determine how to use the remaining $36,000.
The family praised the dedicated efforts of law enforcement.
"One of the comforts to us during this terrible time was knowing how dedicated the police were to finding Vincent and Dawn,” the family stated. “No expense was spared: helicopters, specialized scuba divers, drones and numerous officers, just to name a few measures … We will forever be in debt to the Saskatoon Police Service, the [Royal Canadian Mounted Police] U.S. law enforcement agencies, and every other organization that took part in the investigation and search for Vincent and Dawn.”
Walker’s mother, Theresa Walker, from Okanese First Nation, also issued a statement after the pair was discovered.
“We are elated to hear the news that Dawn and Vinny are safe; our prayers have been answered,” she said. “The past 15 days have been extremely difficult on our family and community. We are thankful to all those who help with the search efforts.”
She added, “Our work does not stop here. We recognize our challenges will continue on into the coming days and weeks, and we will continue to support her through this future challenge.”
Walker also drew support from Okanese First Nation Chief Richard Stonechild, who said the tribe had received information that the boy was at risk.
“The leadership of Okanese First Nation has become aware of significant child welfare concerns regarding our young band member, Vincent Jansen,” Stonechild said. “We are responsible for all our citizens regardless of their residency and care and custody status. Our inherent and treaty rights to intervene when one of our underage band member’s safety is at risk. With the information we have received we believe this is the case and we will assert our self-determination and jurisdiction to ensure all measures are taken.”
The Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations also issued a statement from Vice Chief Heather Bear, but declined to comment further.
“At FSIN we know why First Nations women go missing and recognize that there are many complex issues that surround their disappearances,” Bear said. “This is clearly the case with Dawn and her son Vinnie and we will be closely following the legal process with more details on this case eventually being made public.”
She continued, “It is a shame that our women feel helpless within the current justice system. Despite being a successful writer and having a law degree, what is clear is that Dawn was no exception to this. Every day our women feel they are alone and do not know what to do in their desperate situations. We are the protectors of our children and it's our duty to ensure their safety.”
On Aug. 15, the Native Women's Association of Canada called on the Canadian government to intervene and "negotiate a rapid return" of Walker from the United States.
“We are very relieved to hear her son, Vincent, has been returned to Canada and is safely in the custody of a legal guardian,” said NWAC President Carol McBride. “But we are gravely concerned officials in the United States, and even here in Canada, will fail to take full account of the systemic circumstances involved when Indigenous women believe they are not safe, even in reaching out to those mandated to protect them.”
Lead image: Acclaimed Canadian author and comedienne Dawn Dumont Walker is set to appear in federal court in Oregon on Sept. 7, 2022. She was arrested Aug. 5 in Oregon City after Canadian officials said she attempted to fake her death and that of her son to flee Canada. (Photo by Steve Morgan via Creative Commons)