The Yukon government’s failure to inform parents of students at Hidden Valley Elementary School about sexualized abuse allegations against an educational assistant was “unfair,” according to a report released by the Office of the Yukon Ombudsman on Sept. 7. The document also scathingly asserts that the situation may very well have stayed hidden from parents if not for local media coverage.
The report was compiled following a complaint from a parent of a student at the school to the ombudsman in October 2021. The grievance expressed that the 19-month delay by the Education department in informing parents about the allegations was unfair.
The now-former educational assistant, William Auclair-Bellemare, was accused of sexualized abuse and arrested by the RCMP in late 2019. He entered a guilty plea for the criminal charge of sexual interference the following year and was sentenced to six months in jail in early 2021. During this period, the Education department did not inform parents of the situation.
Parents and the broader community only learned about Auclair-Bellemare’s conviction following a CBC North story in July 2021 about a civil suit filed against the former assistant and the Yukon government. The Education department did not formally communicate the situation to parents until Aug. 11, 2021.
Auclair-Bellmare was arrested again by RCMP in September 2021 over allegations involving two other children between 2014 and 2018. One charge against him was stayed earlier this year, while the judge is expected to deliver a judgment on the remaining charges — sexual assault, invitation to sexual touching and forcible confinement — in October. He has pleaded not guilty to all charges.
In the report’s conclusions, the ombudsman notes that the Education department failed “to meet the ‘fair process’ component of fairness in public administration” by not following a structured process to communicate with parents about the allegations.
It further states that the delay in informing parents of the situation at their children’s school diminished trust that the department acted in students’ best interests. It also robbed parents of the ability to make informed decisions about their kids, “a failure to meet the ‘fair service’ component of administrative fairness.”
In addition to investigating why it took more than a year and a half to inform parents of the allegations, the ombudsman’s office also examined why the department started sharing information about the allegations in August 2021 and whether the department was legally obliged to or prohibited from disclosing the situation to parents.
Regarding the school’s decision to begin sharing details of the situation with parents, the ombudsman chalks this development up to the pressure put on the Education department by the CBC’s reporting.
“If it were not for the media story, we are of the view that the department would likely have maintained its silence […] thus perpetuating the unfairness of depriving the parents from taking any timely action concerning their children and also withholding information that, once released, directly led to two more disclosures of criminal behaviour,” the report reads.
The ombudsman also found that, despite a publication ban, the department could have alerted parents to the situation through a targeted letter.
The report comes over a year and a half after an independent investigation by Vancouver-based lawyer Amanda Rogers determined that the government’s response to Auclair-Bellmare’s abuse at Hidden Valley was “inadequate.” It is the first of two reports by the territory’s ombudsman into the matter.
“Later this year, we will issue a second report into this complaint,” Yukon ombudsman Jason Pedlar said in a news release. “This additional step is due to the multiple investigations into this matter […] Any recommendations we may have will be included in our second report.”
The second ombudsman report will be released in late fall and examine whether the Safer Schools Action Plan sufficiently handles the fairness issues identified in the first report. The plan was created following Roger’s report with the aim of enhancing the safety and well-being of students in the territory and government’s ability to address serious incidents.
In response to the release of the ombudsman’s report, Education Minister Jeanie McLean acknowledged in a prepared statement that “mistakes were made” in responding to the situation at Hidden Valley in 2019 and that steps have been taken to improve student safety.
“The Government of Yukon has apologized — and will continue to apologize — to parents and students at Hidden Valley Elementary School, both for the incident and how it was handled. We acknowledge that more should have been done to inform parents and to support students and their families following the incident,” reads the statement.
In addition to the ongoing criminal proceedings against him, Auclair-Bellemare faces several lawsuits related to his alleged misconduct at Hidden Valley. The Yukon government and the attorney general of Canada are named as co-defendants in these lawsuits, as they represent Auclair-Bellemare’s former employer and the RCMP, whose investigation of the incidents has been widely panned.
— with files from Jim Elliot
Contact Matthew Bossons at email@example.com