Nearly 350 sign petition about Yukon minister's handling of Hidden Valley school sex abuse case

Nearly 350 people signed a petition, tabled in the Yukon Legislature on Oct. 18, calling for former Yukon education minister Tracy McPhee to clearly and publicly disclose when she learned of a 2019 sexual abuse case at Hidden Valley Elementary School, and what directions she gave officials.

Petition calls on former education minister to disclose when she learned of abuse, directions she gave

Tracy McPhee, minister of the Yukon's departments of justice and health and social services as well as the territory's deputy premier, speaks to reporters at the Yukon Legislature on Oct. 18. (Jackie Hong/CBC)

Nearly 350 people signed a petition asking the Yukon's former education minister to publicly disclose when she learned about a 2019 sexual abuse case at Hidden Valley Elementary School, and what directions she gave officials after that.

Lake Laberge MLA Brad Cathers tabled the parent-organized petition in the Yukon Legislature on Oct. 18 as questions about the government's handling of the situation continue to dominate the fall sitting. 

Although earlier questions were largely directed at current education minister Jeanie McLean, the focus of opposition politicians and some parents have recently turned to Tracy McPhee.

McPhee, currently deputy premier and the minister of justice, and health and social services, was education minister in November 2019, when Hidden Valley educational assistant William Auclair-Bellemare was arrested for sexually abusing a student in his care. 

Auclair-Bellemare later pleaded guilty to one count of sexual interference. Education officials never informed parents about the situation, which only became widely known after CBC News reported on a lawsuit filed by the victim in July. 

Police have since identified two new alleged victims, and an additional lawsuit has been filed again Auclair-Bellemare. 

People will keep pushing until they get answers, parent says

The petition, which parents began circulating late last week, says the Yukon government's "failure to communicate meant that other alleged child victims of the sex offender who have since come forward, did not get the support they needed in a timely manner from their parents and health professionals." 

It also says McPhee "knew about the sexual assault" of the 2019 victim but "did not communicate it publicly," and that "anyone not taking a child-centred approach to delivering education in the territory should face real-world consequences for their actions or inactions." 

The petition asks the legislative assembly to "urge" McPhee to "clearly disclose to the public when she was made aware of the 2019 sexual assault at Hidden Valley Elementary School, and what direction she gave Department of Education officials — including any direction regarding communication about this serious incident to parents." 

McPhee has previously refused to answer similar questions posed to her by opposition politicians and reporters, saying that her answers could be considered "evidence" in ongoing legal matters and reviews. 

Documents obtained by CBC News via access-to-information requests show briefing notes prepared for McPhee about Auclair-Bellemare the same month he was arrested and in early 2020.

Hidden Valley parent Robert Ryan, who was among the people who signed the petition, told CBC News in an interview that he thought it was "clear from the number of people who signed it that the people want action and are still not being heard properly."

"If they're not going to be heard and they're going to keep going back and back and back until they do get heard, and I think this is something that the government departments are not used to — they're not used to having oversight and they're not used to having parents question what they're doing," he said.

Ryan said he wasn't interested in waiting to get answers via a review ordered by the government into its handling of the situation, describing it as politicians "kicking the can down the road, hoping it will go away."

McLean, in the legislative assembly on Oct. 18, said the government-hired lawyer leading the review, Amanda Rogers, would be in the Yukon this week to start her groundwork. Rogers will deliver her findings to McLean by Jan. 31, 2022. 

'Parents are justifiably concerned'

McPhee, following the tabling of the petition in the legislative assembly, continued to refuse to answer questions from both the Yukon Party and later by reporters about when she found out about Auclair-Bellemare, again saying the answers were "evidence."

Asked by reporters for her reaction to the petition itself, McPhee said she would "take a look at it and read it."

"I appreciate that there are individuals and family members that are very angry and that that anger is focused on my previous job, but I'll be happy to work with my team here and answer it and work with the team at the education department to do that," she said. 

She later said that "parents are justifiably concerned" and that "there's no question that this is a horrible situation," but that she wanted people to know that the situation was "immediately" turned over to the RCMP in 2019.

"I said the other day [that in] my history as a prosecutor, my work with the RCMP for 20 to 30 years, [I] expected that a full and comprehensive investigation of that situation would have found all potential victims," she said. 

"It did not, and that's devastating. It's devastating to me as the minister of justice, it's devastating to the chief superintendent [of the Yukon RCMP] because this was not done properly." 

McPhee added that, in regards to the lawsuits related to the situation, Yukon government lawyers "are working with the lawyers from the families very closely to resolve the matters."