North·In Depth

Yukon government, RCMP to meet with Hidden Valley parents after new abuse charges laid against former staffer

The Department of Education is hosting a private meeting next week for parents with government officials and the Yukon RCMP after new sexual abuse charges were laid against a former educational assistant. The MLA for the area says there's a "growing frustration" amongst some parents over the situation.

The Department of Education is hosting a private meeting for parents next week

Hidden Valley Elementary School in Whitehorse. The Yukon Department of Education is hosting a meeting next week for parents following the arrest of a former educational assistant at the school on new sexual abuse charges. (Jackie Hong/CBC)

The Yukon education department is hosting a private meeting for parents of Hidden Valley Elementary School next week about a former educational assistant accused of sexually abusing two more children. 

Representatives from the departments of education and justice, as well as the family and children's services branch and RCMP will be present to "address any questions and concerns from parents and guardians," according to a notice from the Hidden Valley School Council. 

The meeting comes after police laid new charges concerning two children against William Auclair-Bellemare, who worked at Hidden Valley until 2019 when he was charged for sexually abusing a third student in his care. 

A number of Hidden Valley parents say they were never informed by educational officials of Auclair-Bellemare's arrest or subsequent guilty plea to one count of sexual interference. The Yukon RCMP received additional complaints about Auclair-Bellemare after the CBC reported on a lawsuit filed by the 2019 victim in July. 

Auclair-Bellemare's current charges relate to alleged incidents dating from 2014 to 2018.

Yukon education minister Jeanie McLean acknowledged in an interview Sept. 16 that "trust has been broken within the school" but that she thought there would be "a lot of opportunities for us to move forward together."

"I think that there's a lot of work to be done here, a lot of healing to happen, so, you know, we're very committed to walking through this together," she said. 

McLean said the department would "take our direction" from and "work with the school community going forward on what their priorities are."

Department reviewing policies on communicating with parents

Parents received a letter from the education department after Auclair-Bellemare was arrested on Sept. 9, unlike in 2019 when parents were never informed he sexually abused a student.

Deputy education minister Nicole Morgan told the CBC a press release issued by the Yukon RCMP naming Auclair-Bellemare and the charges he was facing "gave us the ability to respond differently" than in 2019. 

"We do want to take the time to reflect on all of those aspects of how we respond in each different situation, and, always, hindsight is 20-20," she said.

Morgan said it was "difficult" to answer whether parents would be informed in the future of any criminal incidents involving a school employee because the department's response would "really depend on the context and situation involved." 

McLean, who was not education minister in 2019, did not directly answer a question about whether she thought her department held responsibility for not notifying parents at the time. New alleged victims to came forward after media reports on the lawsuit this summer.

However, she said the department was "guided at the time by publication bans that were in place," and that "we do not take any of this lightly." 

"This is a very serious matter that's impacted our entire school community and all of us as Yukoners, and this is not something that we want to see ever happen again in our schools," she said. "And we'll be taking all the necessary steps to look at our policies and our practices in communicating and speaking with our families on an ongoing basis."

Several Hidden Valley parents previously told the CBC  they were concerned the Yukon RCMP did not thoroughly canvass other children Auclair-Bellemare worked with following his arrest in 2019. 

The Yukon RCMP refused an interview request about those concerns, responding via an unsigned email from its communications account that there "is a publication ban in place and it is [an] ongoing matter before the Courts."

It did not respond to a follow-up request, noting that the CBC was not asking about matters covered by any publication bans. 

'Growing frustration' among some parents, says MLA

Lake Laberge MLA Brad Cathers, whose electoral district includes Hidden Valley, told the CBC he was "disturbed" but not surprised by the news of new charges against Auclair-Bellemare. 

Cathers said he was also hearing about "growing frustration" from some parents about "the lack of information that they've received from the government, the lack of accountability." 

"I had a parent point out that a couple of years back, there was a bear seen near the school," he said. "The school made a big deal, notifying parents... But the predator they had right inside the school, working with our children, they tried to hide from us. I would be more worried about the pedophile working with their children than a bear walking through the subdivision." 

Cathers said parents have also told him they still haven't received the specific supports some have been requesting since July, including the stationing of social workers and counsellors at the school to help students, parents and staff cope with the situation.

Ryan Sikkes, assistant deputy minister of schools and student services, told the CBC that the education department wants to "listen to the struggles that some of the members of that school community were expressing, and then refer them appropriately to who can provide them with the best supports."

"If we know nothing else at schools, we know that everyone is unique and the supports that they will require need to be individualized, and so to simply kind of park a social worker at a school isn't necessarily going to meet everyone's needs," he said. 

Sikkes said that since the beginning of the school year, anyone in need of support may contact a number of people at the school who can direct them to specific counselling or support services offered by the Yukon government.