Sources close to the J.V. cases say there could be as many as 100 victims yet to come forward. Gabriel says wants to see other people speak up, and demand justice from a government that put them in harms way and refuses to acknowledge it’s responsibility today. (Jesse Winter/Yukon News via The Toronto Star)

The Yukon government is quietly settling lawsuits alleging sexual abuse by a former school principal

‘It’s something that you carry inside you for a long time. It doesn’t go away’

Jesse Winter

Toronto Star

The Yukon government is quietly settling a series of lawsuits over sexual abuse at the hands of a former public school principal.

The cases are shrouded in secrecy. Publication bans protect the identity of the abuser — a white man who preyed mainly on Indigenous children. The cases are settled out of court with no public acknowledgement or record of the settlements.

The former principal, identified in public documents only as “J.V.”, was convicted in 1987 after he pleaded guilty to sexual assault and indecent assault of five children. He was the foster parent to three of them, and a youth group leader to another.

He was sentenced to five years on each count to be served concurrently. He now lives outside Whitehorse, where horses graze on his large property beneath a vista of mountains. The Correctional Service of Canada refuses to say when he was released.

“He had no hesitation in violating these innocent, troubled and vulnerable children. He was in a position of trust, and he abused that trust,” the sentencing decision says.

Two decades later, more victims started coming forward.

Starting in 2007, at least six other people have sued the territorial government and J.V. for sexual abuse they say they suffered at his hands as children.

The government’s publicly filed statements of defence accuse the plaintiffs, who were ages 8 to 12 at the time, of negligence for not reporting the assaults to the appropriate authority in a timely manner.

The Yukon government did not answer direct specific questions about these cases. In an emailed statement, the justice department said the publication bans make it illegal for the government to confirm how many cases have been filed. Confidentiality agreements prevent it from acknowledging the existence of the settlements, it said.

The government also did not to say how much money it has spent fighting these cases because they were handled by outside lawyers.

“The cases you are asking about were covered by insurance,” the statement said. “As a result, the Government of Yukon … was not responsible for their payment.”

According to court documents from the 1987 criminal case, J.V.’s crimes include rubbing his erect penis against the children’s buttocks, French kissing, fondling the victims while showering with them, and mutual masturbation.

Many of J.V.’s alleged victims were Indigenous children whose parents had been taken from their homes as children and placed in residential schools or foster care as part of the Sixties Scoop.

“There seems to be a clear indication that the victims were suffering from complications in their own lives, and were particularly vulnerable to J.V.’s attention and affection,” his sentencing record says.

Multiple sources close to the civil cases who asked not to be named for legal reasons confirmed the “J.V.” referenced in the 1987 conviction is the same person named in the civil cases.

Both the criminal convictions and the civil cases include alleged abuses spanning from the late ’60s to the late ’80s.

Along with his work as a principal, J.V. was a member of the local church, a foster parent and youth group leader.

During that time J.V. had nearly unfettered access to hundreds of children, and the territorial government knew or ought to have known about his sexual predilections, the suits allege.

He pleaded guilty in the criminal case, but “he alludes mysteriously to himself possibly being the victim of a ‘set up’,” the sentencing record says.

In his publicly filed statements of defence to the civil claims, J.V. denies knowledge of the victims, even in cases where the government admits they were placed in his foster care.

Despite repeated requests from the Star, including numerous emails, phone calls, and a hand-delivered letter detailing the allegations against him, J.V. would not answer the Star’s questions for this story.

The government also denies everything.

In court, statements of defence filed by lawyers acting for the Yukon deny any knowledge of J.V.’s alleged abuses.

In one case the plaintiff is the same as one of the victims J.V. pleaded guilty to molesting in the 1987 criminal case.

In an emailed statement to the Star, the Yukon justice department would only comment in generalities, citing the publication bans and confidentiality agreements.

“To be clear, no government wants to see children harmed in any way, and adults in positions of trust who prey on children are reprehensible,” the statement said.

“With respect to historic settlement(s), we respect the privacy of individuals who have suffered abuse,” it said.

Dan Shier, the lawyer who represented claimants in seven of the J.V. civil cases, said the government itself “imposes” the confidentiality agreements, under threat of revoking any settlement negotiated.

“It is a tool used by the government to say ‘we’re not going to settle unless you keep your mouth shut,’ ” Shier said.

Publication bans are commonly used to protect the identity of victims of sexual assault. There are times — such as inter-family sex abuse — where naming an alleged abuser could identify victims.

In a case like this, where J.V. would have interacted with many children in his 20-year career, keeping his identity secret goes too far, said Lianna McDonald, executive director of the Centre for Child Protection in Manitoba. McDonald was not involved in J.V.’s case.

“It’s really in the best interest of community safety and in terms of empowering victims to have the courage to come forward, that person’s identity should be known to the public.”

Shier said the Yukon government refuses to acknowledge its responsibility for repeated systemic failures that led to widespread abuse of vulnerable children.

Shier said these cases should be handled differently from typical lawsuits because, unlike a case of consumers wronged by a company, “the government’s got a responsibility to the very people that are suing them.”

In each case, the civil actions are listed in the court record as dismissed with the consent of the parties.

Gabriel Smarch, 39, says he was a victim of J.V. He was a student at a Whitehorse public school when J.V. was the principal. He said J.V. started grooming him in kindergarten.

“I used to get into trouble a lot, and I’d always get sent to the principal’s office,” Smarch said. “A lot of times he would make me sit on his lap and give me cookies and whatnot. When you’re that young you don’t realize what’s happening. He was always touching my ass.”

Smarch says when he was about 8, J.V. took him and other boys from the school on a “special trip,” shopping and swimming.

Smarch says J.V. took the boys back to his house for a barbecue and sleepover. He says J.V. invited him to his bed because the others were filled.

Smarch says he woke up to find J.V. had removed both of their underwear.

Thirty years later Smarch still has difficulty talking about details of the alleged assaults. A copy of a psychiatric assessment Smarch shared with the Star references at least two accounts of alleged abuse by J.V. including “digital penetration and possibly anal rape.”

“It’s something that you carry inside you for a long time. It doesn’t go away,” Smarch said. “It’s worse than cancer.”

For years Smarch told no one what he says J.V. did. He was ashamed, he said, and afraid no one would believe him; they never had before.

“I’ve yelled for help so many times and nobody heard it. Not the cops, not my social workers, not my family,” he said.

When the government finally settled Smarch’s case last winter, he said he got $19,000. Smarch said he took the settlement, which included no admission of wrongdoing, because the government threatened to put him on the stand. He was afraid government lawyers would use his own lengthy criminal history against him, and he might get nothing, he said.

Smarch says he’s speaking out now in the hope that others J.V. abused will feel brave enough to come forward as well.

“We have to do what we can to help these other people, to tell their stories, to give them back their honour and pride and dignity that they were born with and that was taken away from them as a child.”

Shier, Smarch’s lawyer, said he wants to see the government acknowledge its failings, and put in place a new, less adversarial process to deal with abuse cases like Smarch’s.

“I suggested this to the government of the Yukon at least 12 or 13 years ago,” Shier said. “The response was that if you want to raise this publicly, in essence you’re undermining your ability to negotiate with us.”

The impact on J.V.’s alleged abuses is keenly felt by many Indigenous people in Whitehorse, particularly in the Kwanlin Dün First Nation.

The First Nation’s health centre provides free and confidential counselling services for anyone from the Kwanlin Dün community affected by trauma or abuse.

If you ask around at the Salvation Army shelter in Whitehorse you’ll be hard pressed to find someone who says they don’t know a J.V. survivor personally.

By rights, Michael figures, he should be dead.

“I barely made it through my 40s,” he says.

Michael (who asked that his real name not be used) was one of the first to come forward about J.V. during the criminal investigation that ultimately led to J.V.’s conviction. Like thousands of other Indigenous children between the 1960s and 1980s, Michael was taken from his family and placed in foster care as part of the Sixties Scoop. Michael was placed in J.V.’s foster home, where he lived for years.

“We used to fight each other to decide who had to spend the night” in his bed, Michael said.

Michael said he was raped by J.V. multiple times. He says when he aged out of foster care he was so traumatized that he didn’t trust anyone. Eventually he fell in with a local gang.

Today, in his early 50s, Michael lives at a shelter in Whitehorse. He has steady work doing odd jobs around town but what little peace he has came hard.

It was years before Michael found the courage to tell anyone what J.V. had done. “He taught me to shut up. He took my voice away.”

Jesse Winter can be reached at jsswntr@gmail.com

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