Justice minister 'can't tell you' how many sex abuse cases settled against former Yukon principal

Yukon's justice minister responded to questions about a former principal and foster parent who was convicted of sexually assaulting children. The reporter who broke the story says he's been overwhelmed by the response so far.

Toronto Star investigation revealing abuse of Indigenous children was raised in legislature Monday

Justice Minister Tracy Anne McPhee says she can't answer how many civil cases have been settled against 'J.V.', a former school principal who was the subject of a recent Toronto Star investigation. (Wayne Vallevand/CBC)

Yukon's justice minister says she can't say how many sexual abuse cases the government has settled against a former school principal and foster parent.

The issue was raised in the territorial legislature on Monday, in the wake of a Toronto Starinvestigation into abuse suffered by several Indigenous children, between the late 1960s and the late 1980s.

The story describes how the man, identified only as "J.V." due to a publication ban, was convicted in 1987 of sexually assaulting five children, and sentenced to five years for each charge, to be served concurrently. 

It also says that since 2007, another six people have sued the Yukon government and J.V. for sexual abuse, and some of those civil cases have been settled.

Yukon NDP leader Liz Hanson said in the legislature Monday that silencing victims through the gag orders of settlement agreements or bullying them into not testifying (as described in the Toronto Star's story) only serves to re-victimize people who've already been horribly scarred by abuse. 

"The Yukon government must take the next step on the path of reconciliation. Has the minister given consideration to establishing a non-adversarial process through which victims can seek the compensation they deserve while maintaining their dignity?" Hanson asked.

Minister can't say how many cases settled

Speaking with reporters later on Monday, Justice Minister Tracy Anne McPhee said she'd like to explore that, but cautioned that not every victim will choose to come forward. 

"I think we should talk about that, but I want to be very clear — that doesn't mean more victims will come forward. Because that's really an individual decision."

McPhee says she can't answer how many civil cases have been settled against J.V. and therefore can't say how much money the government has spent on settlements.

"There would be a number of cases, both historic and more recent. If there were allegations involving someone who was employed by the government, or acting on behalf of the government, obviously the government would be involved as a named defendant in those kinds of cases," McPhee said.

"But I can't tell you how many there are."

McPhee also said there are many reasons why victims may not want to reveal abuse.

"There are lots of reasons, complex reasons why someone would decide to proceed through a court process, civil or criminal, or why they may not. Or why they may seek help in another way, or why they may not seek help.

"And I want that to be 100 per cent clear: victims need to be able to make those choices on their own behalf." 

McPhee says J.V. can't be named, because he was a foster parent and that group is small enough to be identified. 

According to the Toronto Star, he has been released from federal prison, and now lives outside of Whitehorse. It's not known when he returned to Yukon.

Overwhelmed by response, reporter says

Meanwhile, Jesse Winter, the Toronto Star reporter who pursued J.V.'s story for years, says he's been overwhelmed by the response from readers of his story.

"I've had probably 60 or 70 emails from people all across the country, a lot of them saying 'I know who he is, I remember when he was convicted,'" Winter said.

He says people have also been moved by the plight of 39-year-old Gabriel Smarch, who told Winter about his experiences as a child being sexual abused by J.V., who was then his school principal. According to Winter, Smarch's case was settled by the Yukon government last year — for $19,000.

"He's still struggling with a lot," Winter said. "He definitely wanted his story told and felt that people needed to know."

Winter says since the story was published, people have been asking how to reach Smarch, and thank him for his bravery in coming forward.

"It's overwhelming how many want him to know he is supported," Winter said.

"When you're reporting things about Indigenous communities in the media, there's often a lot of trolls that come out of the woodwork and say really nasty things. And I haven't seen any of that in this case."

It's not clear whether Smarch yet realizes the impact his story has had — Winter says he lives a "chaotic" life, and he can be hard to track down.

"I haven't actually been able to reach him, to be honest. I've been trying," Winter said.  

With files from Sandi Coleman