A mother's story
Gwich'in woman continues to wage solo battle for the return of her children
by Richard Gleeson
NNSL (Apr 27/98) - Time is proving a better friend to Roberta Vaneltsi than politicians and the law.
For the past three years, Vaneltsi has been waging a one-woman war for the return of her two children.
"I've learned you can't depend on too many people in politics to come through for you," said Vaneltsi. "I'm so sick of people saying, 'It must be such a nightmare for you' and not doing anything."
Vaneltsi's children -- Roman, 11, and Petra, 8, are being kept in the Czech Republic by her estranged husband, Petr Cerny.
In 1994, the NWT Supreme Court in Inuvik awarded Cerny and Vaneltsi, who had ended an eight-year relationship, joint custody of their two children.
Cerny argued and won the right to have the custody split into one-year shifts. He explained that he was going to the Czech Republic to care for his ailing mother.
With RCMP in tow, he retrieved the children from Vaneltsi on July 15, 1994. He and the children left Canada shortly after and have not been back since.
Instead of being a happy reunion of a mother and her children, July 15, 1995, marked the beginning of Vaneltsi's campaign to get her children back. She has spent hundreds of hours since phoning and writing politicians and foreign affairs bureaucrats, with little effect so far.
The 31-year-old Vaneltsi, a native of Fort McPherson and former Inuvik resident, moved from Whitehorse to Yellowknife last year with her common-law husband, David Wladyka, and their son.
One of Vaneltsi's supporters, Robert Alexie, said the federal government has done "diddly squat" to get the kids back.
"I burn up with anger when I think about what this guy is doing to Roberta," said Alexie.
As president of the Gwich'in Development Corporation and chairman of the Gwich'in Healing Society, Alexie has appealed for help to the Assembly of First Nations, Western Arctic MP Ethel Blondin-Andrew and Prime Minister Jean Chretien, among others.
But his involvement in Vaneltsi's dilemma, he said, is purely personal.
"I do this as an individual, not because it's part of my job. I do this because I'm pissed off."
"It really frustrates me, even to talk about it," said Alexie. "I try to put myself in Roberta's place. I've got four children, and Lord help anybody who took any of them from me."
Alexie noted that Vaneltsi has the support of the Gwich'in community. Last year, when she travelled to the Czech Republic to take her case to their courts, Gwich'in beneficiaries covered the $4,000 airfare.
But things started to unravel soon after Vaneltsi arrived.
She was informed upon arrival that the Prague lawyer she had been working with for a year could not represent her because the case was being heard in Brno, a city in another province.
Vaneltsi was left to make due with a court- appointed lawyer with two years of experience who had 24 hours to become familiar with her dilemma.
The judge's decision did not acknowledge Cerny's violation of his custody order, the subsequent warrant for his arrest and return of the children to their mother.
"His care for the children has been appreciated as very good," wrote the judge in awarding Cerny sole custody.
"The testimony of the mother has not shown any facts that would prevent the father's care for the children," stated the judge in an awkwardly translated ruling. The judge added that a move to Canada would upset and confuse the children.
Vaneltsi disagreed, explaining, "It's going to be difficult, but these kids, even at the ages of eight and five, were fully aware of what joint custody meant. I spent weeks after we were in court explaining it to them."
There are, however, a few rays of hope on the horizon.
Vaneltsi hopes to return to the Czech Republic this summer to appeal last year's decision.
Earlier this year, the Czech Republic became a signatory to the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of Child Abduction.
Though the convention was introduced to provide the remedy Vaneltsi is seeking, a spokesperson for the federal Department of Foreign Affairs said it carries little legal weight.
"Though the Czech Republic recently signed that convention, it is not retroactive," said Jennifer Ledwidge. "The convention itself is not really useful to any cases that arose before the Czech Republic became a signatory."
Ledwidge said the department has advised Vaneltsi to look at an access provision in the convention that may help her.
"If you are having difficulties exercising your access rights, your provincial-territorial authority can also process an application under the Hague Convention for organizing and securing the effective exercise of these rights."
But the Canadian government has yet to try to make use of the provision to help Vaneltsi.
It was Alexie who pointed out that, without the government, the solution will be left, not the mother, but to the children.
"In about five years time these kids will become legal age and will be able to make their own decisions," he said.