CHATHAM, Ont. – Seven members of an ultra-orthodox Jewish sect were arrested Wednesday by the Canada Border Services Agency over suspected immigration issues, the local children’s aid society said.
Some families in the Lev Tahor community are at the centre of an ongoing child custody case, including one family that fled to Guatemala, but it’s not clear if the arrests were in any way connected to the case.
One community member listed the names of six people he said were arrested and they were not those involved in the child welfare case.
Chatham-Kent Children’s Services co-operated with the CBSA, who arrested seven Lev Tahor members “who are believed to be in violation of Canada’s immigration policy/laws,” Stephen Doig, the children’s aid society’s executive director wrote in an email.
Members of the community told local radio station Blackburn News that those arrested are Israeli citizens and their visas had expired. One member of the community told The Canadian Press some of those arrested were American citizens.
They had been working with a lawyer in Toronto to be able to stay in Canada, said Joel Helbrans.
The seven people arrested are known to have 28 children, Doig said. Kids in cases where both parents in a family have been detained and there is no alternate caregiver are now in care, Doig said, though he did not say how many kids were in children’s aid custody.
It’s unclear how long the children will be in care, Doig said.
Children in the community’s school were “distraught,” praying, crying and screaming, Blackburn News reported.
When Helbrans, who is a teacher in the community, was reached by telephone in the immediate wake of the arrests, the sound of wailing children could be heard in the background.
“You take his mother, you take his sister, you take his father and now child protection wants to take him,” Helbrans said later. “It broke all the families.”
CBSA said in a statement that a number of warrants were executed in Chatham for suspected Immigration and Refugee Protection Act violations and “several” people were arrested, though it does not mention the Lev Tahor community by name.
Once the CBSA is done examining detainees they must appear before the Immigration and Refugee Board within 48 hours. As of Wednesday afternoon the board had not received information from CBSA, so the earliest a hearing would happen is Friday, but more likely Monday, said an official.
CBSA can also release detainees without a hearing, if it chooses.
Fourteen children in the Lev Tahor community are at the centre of an ongoing child custody case.
Eight were apprehended last month after leaving Chatham with their families ahead of a custody hearing. Six were detained in Trinidad and Tobago, en route to Guatemala, and were returned to Canada. Two others were found in Calgary.
Six other children, who are also part of the child custody case, remain in Guatemala where they fled with their parents and another adult.
A Quebec court ordered late last year that 14 Lev Tahor children be placed in foster care after the community of about 200 people left their homes in Ste-Agathe-des-Monts, Que., in the middle of the night, days after a child welfare agency started a court case against a couple of the families.
The community settled in Chatham, where a judge found last month that their move from Quebec was made to avoid the custody proceeding there and he ordered that 13 Lev Tahor children be turned over to child protection authorities in Quebec.
The judge didn’t include one girl who is both under 18 and a mother of an infant in his order. He delayed enforcement of that order so the families could have a chance to appeal.
That appeal was scheduled to be heard March 5 in Chatham, but instead Chatham-Kent Children’s Services brought an emergency motion that resulted in the order to place the kids in temporary care.
The appeal was at that time scheduled to be heard April 4.
The Lev Tahor, which means “pure heart,” came to Canada in 2005 after their spiritual leader, Rabbi Shlomo Elbarnes, also known as Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans, was granted refugee status here.
The community was under investigation for issues including hygiene, children’s health and allegations that the children weren’t learning according to the provincial curriculum.
A spokesman for the community has said Lev Tahor children are given religious education, but he has denied all allegations of mistreatment. The allegations have not been proven in court.