Photo by Whitehorse Star
Education Minister Jeanie McLean
Photo by Whitehorse Star
Education Minister Jeanie McLean
It appears that Currie Dixon wasn’t issuing any empty warnings about what the primary issue of the fall sitting of the legislative assembly would be.
On Thursday afternoon, Currie and his Yukon Party colleagues hammered the governing Liberals with questions about the sexual abuse case involving a former educational assistant at Hidden Valley Elementary School.
The main focus of their questions was a beleaguered Education Minister Jeanie McLean.
The intensity of the attack seemed to take the government members a little by surprise. At one point, McLean blurted out that she had not been aware of the incident until mid-July, when media reports surfaced.
She had been in the office for 2 1/2 months by then – and claimed not to have been briefed by her staff nor her predecessor in the portfolio, Tracy-Anne McPhee.
“I did not become aware of them until the media reported on them,” McLean said.
“They were not part of the initial briefings within — our early briefings coming into the position as new ministers.”
A incredulous Dixon relentlessly asked her to explain that statement further, but McLean refused to address it again.
Time after time, she would merely say “it’s a very sensitive issue” or “it’s before the courts” along with “we know we’ve broken the trust with families.
“I welcome the opportunity to rise in the House today to speak about this very difficult matter that, at the heart, involves our children,” McLean said during question period.
“There is nothing more important than the well-being, safety, and protection of students when they are in our care.
“This is a devastating situation for absolutely everyone involved.
“Again, we acknowledge that there has been a breakdown in trust — we have acknowledged that — between the families, the Hidden Valley Elementary School, the Department of Education, and Yukoners as a whole, but I think that at the heart of this are our children,” McLean said.
“Since this is the first question today in this sitting, I want to remind the members opposite that we are in fact talking about children.
“Something very devastating has happened in this circumstance, and I want to remind them of this. These matters are very sensitive, Mr. Speaker, and I want to ask people to try to tread lightly with this. We are absolutely committed to rebuilding the trust.”
The Yukon Party was also shot down on its request for the Liberals to make all the cabinet documentation and discussions on the matter public.
After the chamber was adjourned for the day, Premier Sandy Silver was less than clear about the Hidden Valley situation with reporters.
He said the Yukon Party’s requests had taken him and the Liberals by surprise – and that’s why they shot down the motion for the cabinet documents to be made public.
“When the Yukon Party springs that kind of question on you, it’s hard to wrap your head around it on the fly,” Silver said.
“If they really want us to work in concert, they might have given us a head’s up. It’s really hard to answer your question when we don’t know what you’re going to ask.
“It’s a political tactic, and we’re doing the work. To play political football with this? No.”
“The independent reviews (see story, p. 8) will be comprehensive, will be open and inclusive and we will be transparent, and all the information we need for making the goal of making things better, will happen.”
Silver stopped short of saying the government would do so while at the same time talking about transparency.
“We will commit to being completely open and transparent with the independent reviews.”
Silver would not answer as to when he first knew about the Hidden Valley file. Nor is he contemplating any disciplinary action.
The NDP also got in on the act, saying the government actions on the situation were unacceptable.
During a post-question period news conference, Dixon said McLean’s claims that she did not know about the Hidden Valley file “strained credulity.”
“We learned two things today. The first is that the minister of Education claims that between the period of early May to mid-July that she never heard a thing about this case.
“That, of course, strains credulity in the greater sense. We are told that the department, her cabinet colleagues, the former minister (McPhee), did not inform her for 2 1/2 months about the biggest scandal facing this government. We find that very hard to believe.”
The second thing learned, Dixon said, “is that the minister of Education didn’t learn the government was subject to a lawsuit for two days.
“I’ve been a cabinet minister, and I can assure you that if a lawsuit making serious allegations of the conduct of my department was tabled in the courts, I would know about it right away.”
If the government didn’t have anything to hide, Dixon said, it wouldn’t have voted against making the cabinet documents public.
“That’s extremely problematic.”
Dixon was questioned as to why he’s insisting that McLean is not revealing the truth rather than considering if the situation is just as likely an example of general government incompetence.
“I’m not sure which,” he said. “But she’s telling us that for 2 1/2 months she didn’t hear about this. As a former cabinet minister, I can tell you those briefings (when you switch portfolios) are intense.
“At the very least, the former minister, her cabinet colleague (McPhee) should have said something to her about it. This is the biggest scandal facing this department and this government.”
Dixon said the party will continue to hammer the government over the issue until it gets more answers.
“We’re hoping it’s going to be a nice, long sitting (of the legislature).”
He was also critical of the review announced by the government on Wednesday evening – shortly before the house convened. That review, he said, only covers the situation in 2019. That scope is too narrow, and needs to be broadened, he said.
NDP Leader Kate White asked during question period, “Mr. Speaker, the handling of the situation at Hidden Valley School was all over the news. The minister offered an apology to parents and caregivers, but we all know that this was too little and it was too late, because so many questions remain unanswered.
“Information gathered under ATIPP paints a picture of individuals at the highest levels of government choosing to withhold information from families,” White said.
“Mr. Speaker, will the minister explain why the Department of Education chose to withhold this information and why families at Hidden Valley School were left in the dark about sexual abuse in their school until after it was publicly reported in the media nearly 18 months later?”
White didn’t have any more luck than did the Yukon Party at receiving a clear answer. She followed up with another blistering salvo.
“The government had the opportunity to make the right choice when the abuse was first disclosed in the fall of 2019,” the NDP leader said.
“They again had the opportunity to make the right choice when the offender was first convicted. They again had the opportunity to make the right choice this July when the story made news headlines, but it took them another month or so of public pressure to just decide to do something.
“Both ministers failed over and over again to do the right thing. Just (Wednesday) night, the minister of Education announced an independent review.
“Mr. Speaker, can the minister explain why parents and Yukoners should start trusting her government to do the right thing and stop withholding information when they have failed to do so multiple times already?”
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