Yukon Justice Minister Tracy-Anne McPhee. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News)

The Yukon government has disgraced itself

The Department of Justice must come clean about the scope of abuse settlements

What does the Yukon government have in common with the predatory movie mogul Harvey Weinstein?

As it turns out, both appear to have used confidentiality agreements to silence victims of sexual abuse in an effort to protect their public reputations.

In a damning story for the Toronto Star that appears in these pages this week, former Yukon News reporter Jesse Winter has documented a sustained effort by the territorial government to cover up incidents of sexual abuse perpetrated by a former teacher.

Identified in court documents only as JV, the teacher pleaded guilty in 1987 of sexual assault and indecent assault against five children. Three were his foster children. JV’s name is kept secret by a court-ordered publication ban.

In 2007, at least six more victims began coming forward, claiming abuse at JV’s hands. Some have reached settlements with the Yukon government. Those settlements include confidentiality agreements, meaning that victims of childhood sexual abuse face the potential for financial penalties if they speak in public about what happened to them.

What’s worse, the government uses the confidentiality clauses as a convenient dodge for any kind of accountability for having employed a sexual predator. This makes Justice Minister Tracy-Anne MacPhee’s response to a question from NDP Leader Liz Hanson even more galling: “The situation in which settlement agreements come — by virtue of settlement agreements — are an agreement. All of the terms in that agreement are agreed upon by both parties.”

They have been agreed upon by both parties, but who in this relationship has the power? Certainly not the victims. Hanson said as much in the legislature on Thursday.

It is important to remember that the publication ban on JV’s identity is not the problem here. Such bans are commonplace in sexual abuse and assault trials in Canada. And with good reason: our courts have determined that the protection of the identity of victims is the utmost priority in such cases. In this instance, three of JV’s victims were foster children in his care, so revealing his identity could conceivably reveal theirs. (It is not known if these former foster kids reached settlements with the government.)

But the courts also allow victims to choose to reveal their identities to the public if they choose. What the Yukon government has done is take away that choice in exchange for cash settlements.

Lawyers and political figures in the YG have apparently decided it is more important to protect the government’s reputation than to allow JV’s victims the choice to speak publicly about what happened to them. Instead, the government has tried to wave money at the problem to make it go away. In fact, Winter reports, the government’s original response to plaintiffs who came forward in 2007 was to accuse them of negligence in not reporting abuse sooner.

Take a minute to read that last sentence again.

The government has refused to say how many victims of JV they have settled with. It has refused to say how many other victims of sexual assault perpetrated by government employees it has reached settlements with. And it has not said how much money it has paid out to victims. Answering these questions would in no way violate individual confidentiality agreements. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the YG is attempting to minimize the scope of the problem.

“Government lawyers have never been instructed to do such a thing (insist on confidentiality agreements),” McPhee said Thursday. But that is not the same as saying government lawyers have never done such a thing.

The Yukon Party, meanwhile, under whose watch these settlements were concluded, avoided the issue in question period entirely, choosing instead to hammer away at their ginned-up “airport tax” kerfuffle.

Here’s the Yukon Party’s statement on the matter: “Our office first became aware of this issue over the weekend. Our hearts go out to the victims of this sickening abuse. For questions regarding how this decision was made, please contact the Government of Yukon.” Considering there are no fewer than four former cabinet ministers in that caucus, including former Justice Minister Brad Cathers, “First we’ve heard of it,” is a statement that beggars belief.

For this, the Yukon Party should also be ashamed.

Then there’s the Justice Department’s willful misunderstanding of inquiries from the News. Again, we want to know how many cases the government has settled involving JV, how many cases of sexual abuse involving government employees other than JV it’s settled, how much money the Yukon government has paid out to victims of sexual abuse in all of these cases, and how much of that figure was covered by insurance — that’s right, the government has insurance policies against this kind of thing.

The answers to these questions are vital to the public’s understanding of the scope of the problem. We are not asking for the Justice Department for details of individual cases, yet the department is pretending we are.

All of these reactions indicate that the Yukon government and its political class are more interested in saving their own skin than any proper reckoning for the YG’s responsibility for allowing a sexual predator to prey on children.

The Liberal government may not have began these settlements but it can choose how it handles this case from now on. It can come clean with the full scope of the abuse perpetrated by JV and others (it’s hard to imagine there aren’t others). It can take a less confrontational approach in handling any future settlements with victims.

There is a precedent here: In 2011, the Nunavut and N.W.T. governments settled with 66 victims of Ed Horne, a teacher who preyed upon dozens of students in the eastern Arctic from the early 1970s to the 1980s. (Though the abuse took place before Nunavut existed, liability was split between the two governments.) The agreement, reached through an alternative dispute resolution process paid a total $15 million and included a fund for counselling and treatment.

Two things are notable about this settlement. One is that it marked a reversal of the governments’ initial — and cruel — claim that some of Horne’s victims may have consented.

The other is that we know about it.

Contact Chris Windeyer at editor@yukon-news.com

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