Saskatchewan's advocate for children and youth is launching a full investigation into the services and oversight of registered independent schools in the wake of abuse allegations from former students of a Saskatoon Christian school.
"The magnitude of the allegations of abuse and the number of concerns raised in both the public forum and identified in my office's review of the information gathered over the past few weeks has informed my decision to conduct a full independent investigation," Children's Advocate Lisa Broda said in a news release Tuesday.
More than 30 former students of Christian Centre Academy (now Legacy Christian Academy) in Saskatoon allege years of physical abuse, solitary confinement, exorcisms, and forced political campaigning by staff and leadership of the school and the adjacent church. None of these allegations have been proven in court.
Broda released a statement on Aug. 19 calling the allegations "very troubling" and indicated she would review the issue.
"I admire the strength and courage of those who have brought these matters forward in advocating for themselves and also for the children and youth currently served by the education system," said Broda.
Earlier this month, a group of former students launched a $25-million class action lawsuit.
Following news of the lawsuit, the Ministry of Education increased oversight of three schools including, Legacy Christian Academy. The schools all had one or more staff members named in the lawsuit.
Last week one of those schools, Saskatoon's Grace Christian School, was stripped of its provincial certification. Its director worked at Christian Centre Academy during the span of the alleged abuse and is one of the people named in the lawsuit.
Broda reviewed all of the information received by the Ministry of Education and decided to investigate.
"The matters pertaining to registered independent schools have been a paramount concern since our office became aware of the allegations of abuse in early August. My legislative mandate is to ensure all services to children are in accordance with the legislation, regulations and policies through which they are provided — and that those documents and services respect, protect and fulfil the rights of children," Broda said.
Former student encouraged by news of investigation
Caitlin Erickson, a former student at Christian Centre Academy, is one of the plaintiffs in the class action lawsuit. She and other former students met with the media outside Broda's Saskatoon office on Aug. 18 and called for an investigation.
Speaking to CBC on Tuesday, Erickson said she hopes the advocate makes recommendations to the government.
"It's becoming very clear that there are several gaps in the oversight of these [schools]. I hope that there can be more regulation and oversight."
Erickson said there are "systemic issues," including ensuring students at independent schools get education that is equal to the public system.
In addition, she said the government should also make sure teachers are certified to teach in these schools and follow the curriculum.
"It's a systemic culture of putting the forefront of religion over a student's educational experience."
She said religion should not be used "as a form of abuse."
Erickson said she is encouraged the advocate is taking a look at the system and hopes it will give students who are currently enrolled an opportunity to anonymously share their concerns.
Minister welcomes investigation, asks for co-operation from schools
Minister of Education Dustin Duncan took questions from the media Tuesday.
Duncan said the ministry welcomes the investigation and is asking any independent schools subject to Broda's inquiry to "fully co-operate."
Duncan pointed to regulatory changes the province made earlier this month, including adding unannounced visits from the ministry.
"We want to ensure that students are safe in the schools they are attending and the government is providing additional oversight to qualified independent schools."
Duncan said he could take additional steps to put a school on probation. He said the increased oversight has already resulted in Grace Christian School closing.
Duncan said that while the allegations are "very concerning," they "seem to be from a time before these schools had any oversight from the province."
Erickson has previously said that she has spoken to students who have raised abuse allegations more recently than 2012. Duncan said he is aware of two complaints made in 2016 against a former staff member at Legacy Christian Academy who later moved to Grace Christian School.
"My understanding is that the ministry's consulted legal counsel who advised the ministry to direct the individual to go to the police."
As for concerns of students heading to school this week, Duncan said Saskatoon Police would notify the ministry if there were any safety concerns.
"The fact they did not notify the Ministry of Education gives me comfort that students are in a safe environment."
Duncan said he expects the advocate's investigation to take six to 10 months and that it was "too early" to say what steps the government would take as a response.
He said he will be "reaching out" to the former students who have made abuse allegations.
"I want to hear firsthand from them what their experience was."
Opposition Leader Carla Beck had called for the advocate to launch an investigation. In a news release Tuesday, she called the news "welcome and long overdue."
Beck said the government has mishandled the allegations made by former students.
"I sincerely hope the Sask. Party government will co-operate with the Advocate's investigation and heed their recommendations. In the meantime, we need answers from Scott Moe and his education minister on their shameful failure to act."
Under the Advocate for Children and Youth Act, the advocate can make recommendations to the government and its agencies "to strengthen service delivery" to students in registered independent schools.
The advocate does not have the authority to investigate criminal matters.
"It is critical that young people are being educated in environments that respect their inherent dignity and their full range of human rights," Broda said.
"Although there are several processes currently underway examining the issues raised by these allegations from various perspectives, an independent, child-rights lens is required to ensure the education system in Saskatchewan — in all its forms — is operating with the best interests of the child at its centre."