MONTREAL — The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs is praising a scathing Quebec Human Rights Commission (QHRC) report that said a lack of consultation and communication between Quebec youth protection, school, social service and police officials in last year’s Lev Tahor case was mainly what prevented the welfare of the group’s 134 children from being top priority.
“It’s coherent and it’s relevant,” David Ouellette, CIJA’s associate director for Quebec public affairs, said of the report.
In particular, Ouellette endorsed the document’s two recommendations about the need to be able to enforce Quebec court orders in Ontario and the rest of Canada and for better “information-sharing” among authorities
Released July 9, the report said an absence of legally binding co-operation between Quebec and Ontario gave the ultra-Orthodox group the time it needed to leave Chatham-Kent in Ontario and head to Guatemala in March 2014, despite pending court cases and allegations of child abuse.
“Clearly, youth protection interventions regarding the children of this community did not fully respect the principle of the child’s best interests,” QHRC head Jacques Frémont said.
“It appears that other considerations affected the interventions, taking more time and losing track of the best interest of these children.
“Freedom of religion cannot – in any circumstances – be used as the a pretext for abuse and neglect.”
The Lev Tahor case dominated headlines in Quebec and Ontario for months after 250 people from 40 families left their Laurentian mountains enclave in Ste Agathe, Que., for Chatham-Kent in Ontario in November 2013 amid allegations of neglect, physical abuse, improper education, and coerced underage marriage.
Lev Tahor representatives have consistently rejected all charges.
The group had lived in Ste Agathe for a decade under the cultish leadership of Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans, a convicted kidnapper who rigorously enforced an extreme form of Orthodox life.
Quebec’s Department of Youth Protection (DYP) had been investigating Lev Tahor since 2006.
The QHRC report was commissioned by the former Parti Québécois government in the wake Lev Tahor’s departure for Central America last year.
It cited a number of reasons for the ultimate failure to help Lev Tahor’s children.
Besides the overall lack of co-ordination between authorities, among the issues identified in the report was the fact the DYP and school investigators “dealt with [Lev Tahor] leaders” instead of parents, according to Camil Picard, vice-president of the QHRC’s youth mandate.
As well, he said, 17 months – an unacceptably long time – elapsed between the time DYP first got the file and the “massive” Quebec provincial police operation to try to seize the children.
“Considering the circumstances, certain actions were questionable,” Picard said.
Another recommendation of the report was that Quebec’s health and social services minister should create and widely distribute a guide on “best clinical and administrative practices” regarding youth protection in cases dealing with sects or closed communities.
Another was that Quebec’s multi-sector agreement on child victims of sexual abuse, physical abuse, or neglect that threatens physical health, “be reviewed to ensure that it meets the needs of the DYP when dealing with children who are members of a sect or closed community.”
Public Health and Youth Protection Minister Lucie Charlebois welcomed the QHRC report and has indicated her government will try to improve the situation.
Ouellette travelled to Guatemala in June 2014, not long after Lev Tahor members initially arrived there, and subsequently described frictions that were already developing between the community and the population of a small lakeside town in the country’s interior where they had settled.
Lev Tahor later moved to the capital, Guatemala City, but Ouellette said “no one knows how they’re doing” since his visit there more than a year ago.
“We’ve even stopped hearing from the Israeli relatives” who had previously regularly expressed concerns over the well-being of Lev Tahor children, he said.
“They’ve gone completely off the radar.”