School volunteers in Canada face varying rules for background checks

In the wake of reports that Karla Homolka was an occasional volunteer at her children’s’ school, here’s how criminal background checks for volunteers compare across the country



Reports that convicted serial killer Karla Homolka “occasionally volunteered” at Greaves Adventist Academy in Montreal, the private Christian school her children attend, has led to questions about the school’s volunteer screening policy. A criminal background check is necessary to obtain a teaching license, but provinces and territories differ on whether, how often and which volunteers should be checked.

Here’s what departments of education in many provinces or territories had to say about criminal background checks for volunteers:

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“It is our government’s expectation that every school board ensures that volunteers at the schools have criminal background checks as all school authorities are responsible for providing students with a welcoming, caring, respectful and safe learning environment,” Lindsay Harvey, press secretary for Education Alberta wrote in an email.“School authorities are in the best position to make decisions—including those related to volunteers—based on local considerations, including the application of any relevant legislation such as the [federal] Criminal Records Act and [the provincial Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act].”

British Columbia
School boards, francophone education authorities and independent schools are covered under the province’s Criminal Record Review Act. Per the legislation, these organizations “must ensure that every individual who will work with children or work with vulnerable adults as a volunteer” first undergoes either a criminal record check or a criminal record check verification. Existing volunteers have to be re-checked every five years.

New Brunswick
Volunteers are covered under the province’s Policy for the Protection of Pupils. Under the policy, school district superintendents are required to “ensure screening procedures, appropriate to a person’s role vis-à-vis students, are carried out for all persons who act on the superintendent’s behalf in the school system, including volunteers.” Disqualifying factors include “convictions for violent crimes or crimes against children,” or charges not resulting in conviction “solely as a result of technical reasons stated in the court decision.”

Nova Scotia
“Each school board has a policy or procedure with respect to Criminal Records Check and Child Abuse Registry checks for all school staff and school volunteers,” Heather Fairbairn, a media relations advisor at the Department of Education and Early Childhood Education, wrote in an email. “Each school board policy/procedure requires a Criminal Records Check and a Child Abuse Registry check for all employees (including student teachers) and volunteers. The department provided school boards with guidelines on volunteer screening based on national standards of practice.”

Private institutions “are responsible for having their own policies in place for ensuring student safety,” she noted.

The territory does not have “a policy specifically relating to volunteers,” Maria Mendillo, communications manager at the Department of Education, wrote in an email. But “guidance relating to volunteers” has been included in the forthcoming “School Excursion Policy.” A release date has not been announced.

“School boards are responsible for ensuring the safety of students and are required to conduct a criminal background check for every employee and for service providers who come into direct contact with students, prior to commencing work at a school site,” Heather Irwin, senior media relations co-ordinator at the Ministry of Education, wrote in an email. “We are also aware that most school boards have additional policies in place which require police record checks for volunteers.”

The Ministry “does not regulate, license, accredit or otherwise oversee the operation” of private institutions, “including inspecting or approving items such as matters related to staffing.”

Irwin also highlighted regulatory requirements instituted in 2015 that require child care facility operators “to obtain vulnerable sector check documentation for employees, students and volunteers before they begin interacting with children and offence declarations annually thereafter.”

READ MORE: Why Karla Homolka’s children will pay for her crimes

School boards are responsible for trips and activities, including whether background checks are conducted on volunteers or participants, says Brian Saint-Louis, a spokesman for Quebec’s Ministère de l’Éducation, du Loisir et du Sport. “We have some guidelines—when there’s sports activities and so on, we recommend people to check everything is okay, but it’s a school board responsibility.”

The province’s education act contains nothing “prescribing the requirements for volunteers in school divisions in the province,” Chris Hodges, a media relations consultant at the Ministry of Education, wrote in an email. “The province’s boards of education have the authority to develop policies related to those volunteering in their school division.”

The Volunteers in the Schools Policy of the territory’s education department requires that school administrators “must ensure that any volunteer who will or may at any time have authority or care or control over students provides written consent for an up-to-date security clearance,” which volunteers provide on the mandatory registration form. Anyone “billeting” with students on a school trip must provide consent for an RCMP check under the “Off-site Experiential Learning Policy.”

These requirements allow school administrators to conduct checks if they so choose. “The decision to request a security clearance is left up to the school administrator,” Kyle Nightingale, a communications analyst at the Yukon Department of Education wrote in an email. “The school administrator’s decision to complete the security clearance may depend on circumstances such as the type of volunteer activity or the frequency of volunteer activity.”



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