Don't 'sideline' review of Hidden Valley, Yukon's child advocate tells gov't

Yukon's Child and Youth Advocate says she's afraid of being "sidelined" by the territorial government, as she conducts her review of student safety at Whitehorse's Hidden Valley school.

Annette King launched a review last summer after sexual abuse case at the school came to light

Annette King, Yukon's child and youth advocate, said Tuesday she was 'a little bit confused' by the territorial government's review of sexual assault at Whitehorse's Hidden Valley School, because her own office is already doing its own independent review. (Archbould Photography)

Yukon's Child and Youth Advocate says she's wary of being "sidelined" by the territorial government, as she conducts her review of student safety at Whitehorse's Hidden Valley Elementary School.

Annette King launched her review in August, in the wake of news reports about the 2020 conviction of a former educational assistant at the school. William Auclair-Bellemare had pleaded guilty to one count of sexual interference against a student and was sentenced to six months' jail followed by two years of probation.

Since then, other alleged victims have come forward and the territorial government earlier this month ordered its own independent review of its handling of the matter.

King says she's "a little bit confused" by that review, because her own office is also independent of government.

"I have been asking them questions," she said.

"It's hard to take that any way other than a bit of an overshadowing or an insult or a sidelining of our independence. And so a lot of that can be coming down to, how do you define 'independence'?"

The Child and Youth Advocate Office is meant to represent the rights and interests of children and youth in Yukon who are eligible for or receive government services. It does not report to any government minister or department.

According to a news release last summer, King's review of Hidden Valley school aims to promote safety in schools, particularly students with special needs.

It's also meant "to ensure appropriate processes are in place to prevent abuse and to respond appropriately when abuse occurs," the release says.

According to a news release last summer, King's review of Hidden Valley school aims to promote safety in schools, particularly students with special needs. (Jackie Hong/CBC)

The territorial government's review, announced earlier this month, will look into the "internal and inter-departmental processes" that came after Auclair-Bellemare was first accused of sexually abusing a student in his care in November 2019. Lawyer Amanda Rogers has been hired to conduct that review.

Meanwhile, RCMP are also doing their own internal investigation into how police responded, and on Monday Yukon's ombudsman launched her own investigation into the government's failure to communicate with Hidden Valley parents and students earlier.

King says she's not against multiple reviews of the matter, "because this is an important issue that needs to be looked at and many different angles."

'I don't want to be sidelined'

Still, she's trying to figure out how to ensure that her own work makes an impact. She says one question is whether she should work quickly so her findings are included in Rogers's review, or wait for Rogers's work to conclude and incorporate it into her own report. 

"I don't want to be sidelined. I really want the Child and Youth Advocate Office, which is the voice and rights of young people, to be more forefront, than pushed to the benches," King said.

"We're just moving along in our own way, and we will provide advice in the form of a report to the minister of education."

Rogers's report and recommendations are expected to be submitted to the education minister in 2022. 

King also said Tuesday that she's been disappointed that some of her immediate recommendations from August seem to have fizzled. At the time, she urged the Education Department to communicate to families "about the school's response to reports of harm," and assign a full-time social worker or clinical counsellor to the school.

The hope, she said, was that there would be immediate response to help parents and students know what to do if they were affected by abuse at schools, and where to go for support.

"I would say in pieces, some of that has happened," King said.

"I think the school itself is working really hard to try to support families, but I wouldn't say that the coordinated effort that I was looking for has happened yet."

Written by Paul Tukker with files from Elyn Jones and Jackie Hong