The Yukon's education minister says she didn't know about an educational assistant who sexually abused a student at Hidden Valley Elementary School in 2019 until the CBC reported on a lawsuit filed by the victim.
Responding to questions from Yukon Party leader Currie Dixon in the legislative assembly on Oct. 7, Jeanie McLean said the case was not part of the briefings she received when she became education minister following the territorial election this spring.
Dixon, at a press conference afterwards, said he thought that "[strained] credulity in the greatest sense."
"We were told, then, that the department, [McLean's] cabinet colleagues, the former [education] minister, did not inform her for two and a half months about the biggest scandal facing this government," he said.
"We find that very hard to believe… It could be that she's not telling the truth or it could be incompetence."
McLean, in an interview on Yukon Morning on Oct. 8, said she was "quite offended" by Dixon suggesting she had been dishonest.
"I made those statements in the legislative assembly — it is true that that is when I learned of it, but I think what's more important is the steps we're taking to address the situation," she said.
The Yukon government announced Oct. 6 that McLean had hired a lawyer to conduct an independent review on how the departments of education, justice and health and social services handled the case. It also said it would be cooperating with a policy review being undertaken by the territory's child and youth advocate.
McLean said the lawyer's review would look at department processes, including communication, in 2019 and anything stemming from there.
Documents obtained by the CBC through access-to-information requests show that at least two briefing notes were prepared for McLean's predecessor, Tracy McPhee, about the criminal proceedings against educational assistant William Auclair-Bellemare — one about a week after his arrest in November 2019, and another in March 2020.
Auclair-Bellemare later pleaded guilty to one count of sexual interference. Parents were never informed of the situation. Auclair-Bellemare is now facing new charges related to the alleged sexual abuse of two other children.
Premier accuses Yukon Party of playing 'political football'
The Yukon Party, besides grilling McLean in the legislative assembly on Oct. 7, also unsuccessfully attempted to pass an emergency motion asking the government to waive cabinet confidence and release documents related to when cabinet became aware of sexual abuse allegations at Hidden Valley, and who made the decision to not notify parents.
While Dixon said the failure of the motion, which would have required unanimous consent to pass, showed a lack of transparency from the government, Premier Sandy Silver accused the Yukon Party of trying to play politics.
"As opposed to political tactics when it comes to this extremely important situation and issue, we're doing what the important work is, which is to get an independent review, work with the child and youth and advocate, make sure that we are giving... all the information necessary in those processes, and we absolutely will," Silver told reporters.
"To play political football with this? No."
Dixon described the government's review as "too little, too late," and claimed it wasn't extensive enough.
"We know that ... decisions were taken at the highest level, between ministers, and we think that the inquiry should have the opportunity to look at the behaviour and activities of the ministers during that time as well," he said.
Yukon NDP leader Kate White, who also hammered McLean on Hidden Valley, told reporters she was "always hopeful" when asked about the review. However, she added that systemic changes need to happen now — such as ensuring line-of-sight in all classrooms — instead of waiting for a report to be delivered.
"The truth of the matter is, had this not been mishandled from the very beginning, we wouldn't be in this position right now… Those other kids who came forward with allegations, they wouldn't have been almost 21 months without the support that they needed," White said.
"And that is a failure [of] the Department of Education, that is a failure of the Liberal government."
'I would like to see some action'
Jorn Meier, who has a child who attends Hidden Valley, said parents haven't been provided "any particulars" about the government's independent review but that he would like to see it take a "very holistic" approach — and for it to result in repercussions.
"Does [the review] mean people may be held accountable? Or does that just mean, 'OK, some mistakes were made, and this is how we do that better in the future?'" he asked. "I would like to see accountability by the people that are responsible for what happened here."
Meier said he and other parents have been annoyed with information from the government coming out in "bits and pieces," and that while education officials have promised changes at Hidden Valley, he, personally, had not noticed any.
"I would like to see some action," he said.
"Do I trust that this can not happen ever again? No."