Rabbi Shlomo Elbarnes
CHATHAM, Ont. - A court in southwestern Ontario is hearing arguments today on whether it should enforce an order from Quebec to remove 14 children from an ultra-Orthodox Jewish sect.
Members of the Lev Tahor community were under investigation by social services in Quebec late last year for issues including hygiene, children's health and allegations that the children weren't learning according to the provincial curriculum.
Court has heard that most of the community of about 200 people left their homes in Ste-Agathe-des-Monts in the middle of the night while that investigation was ongoing and settled in Chatham, Ont.
Child welfare authorities in Chatham are now asking the court to enforce an order subsequently made in Quebec that would see the children placed in foster care — an order which is being appealed in Quebec.
But Chris Knowles, a lawyer for the families, says the children's aid society in Chatham has no legal jurisdiction to do that, as he argues their powers are limited to starting a child protection investigation of their own.
The community denies any mistreatment of the children and says they were already planning to move out of Quebec.
Chatham-Kent Children's Services' lawyer, Loree Hodgson-Harris, said the evidence clearly shows the group fled to escape the Quebec court's jurisdiction.
"The state of the families' homes obviously implied that the departure of the families was precipitous," she said. Some jewelry and credit cards were found left behind, and one coffee maker was left on, she said.
There is no specific avenue under the Child and Family Services Act for the Ontario court to enforce Quebec's order, Hodgson-Harris said, but she pointed to other legislation under which she said the Ontario court could make an order.
"We can't allow in this country people to just pick up and leave because they don't like the process or they don't want to comply and it was pretty clear form the evidence that they weren't going to comply," she said.
The hearing was previously adjourned on Dec. 23 so that one of the children — a teenage mother — could be represented by a separate lawyer. Chatham-Kent Children's Services' lawyer said they are not asking the court to order the return of the teenage mother.
The Lev Tahor, which means "pure heart," came to Canada in 2005 after their spiritual leader, Rabbi Shlomo Elbarnes, was granted refugee status here.
Members of the anti-Zionist group, which opposes Israel and advocates Arab domination in the region, settled in a popular tourist destination in the Laurentian mountains north of Montreal.
Elbarnes made headlines in the United States in 1994 when he was convicted of kidnapping a teenaged boy. The boy was studying under him in Brooklyn. After serving his sentence, Elbarnes was deported to Israel. He then entered Canada on a temporary visa.
A Federal Court ruling in 2005 upholding Elbarnes' refugee status in Canada found he could not be considered safe in Israel, in part because his "religious belief and opinion are against the mere existence of Israel as an independent country."