Some parents with children at Whitehorse’s Hidden Valley Elementary School say they don’t believe recent apologies from the education department about the handling of a sexual abuse case at the school were sincere.
Officials from the Yukon RCMP and the Department of Education issued public apologies Sept. 23 for shortcomings in their responses in 2019 to the case of William Auclair-Bellemare, a now-former educational assistant who sexually abused a young student in his care.
Auclair-Bellemare was later convicted of sexual interference; however, parents were never informed about the criminal proceedings, and police only recently charged him for the alleged abuse of two other children after CBC News reported on a lawsuit filed by the 2019 victim in July.
RCMP and education officials also attended a private meeting for Hidden Valley parents the evening of Sept. 22.
‘I don’t understand’
Robert Ryan was among the approximately 50 parents who went and said he thought the atmosphere was “tense,” particularly when it came to questions or comments directed at Education Minister Jeanie McLean and deputy minister Nicole Morgan.
“Most of the parents went up and said, ‘We are extremely disappointed and we don’t trust you, and right now, you are not giving us any answers at all,'” Ryan said.
“…It was kind of interesting and nice to see them squirm because they deserve to squirm, but after two hours of it, it was painful because they just appeared to be totally and utterly incompetent.”
Ryan said that while he thought the apology from police seemed like it “came from the heart,” he felt education officials didn’t properly explain why they had “hidden” the situation from parents.
“I don’t understand how [they] can make so many mistakes and then keep making so many mistakes and then expect us to trust them, trust them that they can get this right in the future,” he said.
‘Would we have ever known?’
Another parent, whose child is an alleged victim of Auclair-Bellemare, also said she thought the apology from the Yukon RCMP at the private meeting was “heartfelt and honest.” However, she said that she thought comments and apologies made by Morgan weren’t “authentic.
“For every apology, she followed it with an excuse … whereas the RCMP officer and the minister just simply said they were sorry, that they were going to get to the bottom of it, do a full investigation, provide the results or the information back to the public,” she said. “… They never made excuses.”
CBC News is not identifying the parent as the child’s name is under a publication ban.
While the parent said she appreciated the fact that McLean attended, she was frustrated that Tracy McPhee, who was education minister in 2019, wasn’t at the meeting.
“She’s the one who should be here to answer to these questions,” the parent said. “I don’t believe that Minister McLean should be answering to these questions when she had no knowledge of it.”
The parent said she was doubly frustrated because her child’s educational assistant allotment had been cut back at the beginning of the school year, despite her meeting with Morgan and an assistant deputy minister two weeks before classes started.
“So knowing that a child was victimized, they reduced his support,” she said, adding that Hidden Valley itself had put in a request for her child to have a full allotment. “Why would somebody do that if they actually had the best interests at heart of a child who they knew had been victimized? Why would they do that?”
“The biggest question that still wasn’t answered,” she added, “is if this [parent of the 2019 victim] didn’t come forward and sue the Department of Education, would we have ever known? Would the victims that have [recently] come forward ever been able to release that information? Would they have ever been able to tell their story?”
Follow-though on promises ‘key,’ says MLA
Lake Laberge MLA Brad Cathers, whose riding includes Hidden Valley, told CBC News on Sept. 24 that he had heard “mixed” reactions so far from parents about the private meeting, with some “feeling that it was positive and moving in the right direction” while others felt it was unproductive.
“As you can imagine, there is some frustration on the part of parents that it’s taken as long as it has to to get to the stage, but with that being said, what was said [at the meeting and public apology] was a step in the right direction,” Cathers said.
The “key thing” for parents and himself, he added, would be seeing whether the government would follow up on its promises.
“If we’re not seeing the follow-through in the actions that are necessary, we will use all the means within our disposal to press the government for accountability,” he said.