Mariecar Jackson was halfway through a three-hour drive in a Saskatchewan snowstorm.
She hadn’t seen her seven-year-old daughter for more than three weeks, and was determined to pick the girl up at the home of Mariecar’s ex-husband, the child’s father, in Carievale, Sask., a village about 300 kilometres southeast of Regina, where she lives.
That’s when the RCMP called and told her to turn around and go home.
Her ex-husband, Michael Jackson, and their daughter, Sarah, were gone, authorities said.
“I remember I had no energy,” Mariecar said. “I felt so hopeless. I was crying the entire time.”
That was Dec. 8.
It’s now been more than two months since Mariecar has seen her daughter. Her ex-husband has taken their daughter to an unknown location, despite court orders to return her.
What has spurred the ordeal — though far from the only factor at play — is a fight over whether to vaccinate the child against COVID-19. Mariecar believed the girl should be immunized; Michael is vehemently against it.
Both parents have since spoken to media, Mariecar desperately asking anyone who sees her girl to call police, and Michael explaining on a far-right online show his decision to take the girl in the face of vaccination and insisting she’s being well treated.
In addition to spotlighting increasing conflicts between parents over vaccination, it’s a story that is cruelly illuminating the challenges parents encounter when trying to get the justice system to enforce custody orders.
On Dec. 8, police had gone to Michael’s home in Carievale to try and get the child but found he’d fled.
“I was just in the car,” Mariecar recalled of her day in the snowstorm. “I called the MLA, I called the MP, they said it’s not their jurisdiction. I called the child youth advocate, I called child protection, they said it’s not their jurisdiction … (it feels like) nobody can help me.”
The former couple divorced in 2018 and until recently had joint custody of their daughter. Mariecar’s home was primary residence and she had ultimate decision-making authority if the parents come to a disagreement. In the wake of the girl’s abduction, Michael’s access has been reduced to supervised access only, a court order of which he is currently in violation, said Jill Drennan, Mariecar’s lawyer and director of Regina’s rural legal-aid office.
Mariecar, who works as an educational assistant and has no other family in Canada, says it’s been an agonizing month as she wonders where Sarah might be.
“I’ve lost a lot of weight, but since I work with children that gives me a little bit of sanity,” Mariecar said, her voice raw from crying.
“I just feel like I need to be strong for my daughter. I’m just trying to be present all the time so I won’t break down.”
According to Drennan, the child has been with her father since around Nov. 10, when he had his daughter for visitation for the Remembrance Day long weekend. He did not return the girl on the agreed-upon date of Nov. 15.
Mariecar last spoke with Sarah on Nov. 21. She was able to tell her daughter she loved her before the call ended abruptly.
As it became clear the father had no intention to return the child, Mariecar sought a return order through the courts on Nov. 26, which was granted. The father immediately appealed the order, which is still pending, but the courts lifted the stay of execution, which means police could enforce the order to return the child in the interim.
Michael appeared on an online talk show with far-right personality Laura-Lynn Tyler Thompson last week and defended his decision to take the child to an unknown location. He acknowledged the mother has final say in decision making but said he did not feel his position was being given enough weight.
He said he’d been trying to engage in discussion giving their child the COVID-19 vaccine for “months” but that the mother was set on her decision to immunize the child.
“I saw it coming … She gave me a text back saying I’m going to do whatever the government tells me to do. So my choice was made then and there,” Michael said in the segment.
In the recorded interview, Sarah can be seen in the background, and he gives consent for her to be recorded because he wants people to see she is “healthy and happy.”
Michael could not be reached for further comment. A Saskatchewan cellphone number linked to him has been disconnected.
Drennan, Mariecar’s lawyer, said they have no idea where Michael could be, but they have concerns he’s left Saskatchewan as he has family elsewhere in the country.
“We don’t actually have solid proof that he’s been sighted anywhere,” she said.
One source of frustration for them is that police seem to be keeping the investigation quiet, perhaps out of concern of alerting Michael and causing him to flee further.
Police have thus far not issued any news releases or public pleas for help. Saskatchewan RCMP declined to comment.
Mariecar said she’s frustrated there have been no solid leads over the past four weeks and said she’s had limited communication with the RCMP.
“To be honest with you, I am frustrated with police, but I know they are my only allies. So I am just trying to be patient,” Mariecar said.
“I do not feel that they are taking me seriously. Because if they were, they would call me and update me. But sometimes I would be the one to call them all the time,” she added.
Furthermore, she said police have expressed skepticism that Michael would take their daughter out of the country and that they don’t consider her “missing.”
In Canada, courts have repeatedly sided with parents in favour of vaccination when there is a disagreement.
In a recent decision out of Lethbridge, Alta., the judge sided with a mother who wanted her two kids vaccinated without the consent and despite the objections of their father. The father was also banned from discussing COVID-19 with his children because the judge determined he was exposing them to harmful disinformation.
In a case out of Ontario, a judge ruled an anti-vax father could only visit his children while masked and outdoors.
Katharina Janczaruk, president of the Ontario Association of Child Protection Lawyers, said court orders for the return of a child to a specific parent can be very difficult to enforce.
“For instance, if you just have an order that says child should be with mother, mother’s going to have difficulty enforcing that. What she’ll typically have to do is go to the court and get an order that specifically directs the police to locate and apprehend the child,” Janczaruk said.
“Sometimes police are taking the position that it’s a domestic and they really don’t want to be involved. And it takes a little bit of convincing to say this has actually gone beyond family court and you need to do something,” she added.
Janczaruk said she’s heard of disputes between parents over vaccination becoming more common, but has not heard of it reaching this level.
“I would say that this conflict about vaccines is not uncommon, but conflict to this extent is I would say unusual,” she said.
For Mariecar, the vaccine is currently the least of her worries. She wants to send a message to her ex-husband to set aside their differences and to focus on the effect this ordeal is having on Sarah.
“I want to set aside the vaccine issue for now and focus on what is important, and that is our daughter. And to Sarah, I just want you to know I think of you every day. I want you to know mommy never stopped looking for you. I just want you to come home soon and be a normal kid. And mommy loves you very much.”
Drennan is urging the public to contact the RCMP if they see Michael or Sarah.
“We’re just hitting a bit of a wall where we don’t know what the next steps are going to be. And the clock is ticking.”