I love a well-constructed thesis, and this is particularly so when it comes to issues that are of genuine concern to me. I mention this because a brilliant thesis, The Biopolitics Of Indigenous Reproduction: Colonial Discourse And The Overrepresentation Of Indigenous Children In The Canadian Child Welfare System, by Laura Christine Luise Landertinger of Queen’s University, Ontario, provides the needed antidote to the news coverage of the Lev Tahor families.
Her thesis is on the topic of indigenous child removal in Canada, however her analysis is a crucial one, inasmuch as it perfectly addresses the issue of how the news media disseminates “controlling images of indigenous peoples and their children.” In broader terms, her analysis may be applied to journalistic coverage of people of all races, colors, and creeds. With regard specifically to indigenous children in Canada, she writes:
While it is widely accepted that the forceful removal of indigenous children during the residential school era and the “Sixties Scoop” was a colonial strategy, contemporary child welfare practices seem to escape the same scrutiny. This seems to be the case even though indigenous children continue to be removed en masse and are vastly overrepresented in the Canadian child welfare system. Indeed, there are more indigenous children in ‘care’ today than ever before in Canadian history, including the residential school era and following the “Sixties Scoop”. Given these trends the colonial effect of contemporary child welfare practices seems evident.
It’s much the same in Canada as it is in the United States, the Indian Child Welfare Act having been largely ignored by the states. A recent article in a publication no more radical than TIME explains that while social services in Australia deny targeting Aboriginal families, “the statistics of children in out-of-home care paint a disturbing picture.”
Returning once again to the thesis, Laura Christine Luise Landertinger writes:
This project thus seeks to problematize child welfare practices in relation to indigenous peoples. In particular, it is the aim of this thesis to shed light on some of the narratives that underlie these practices. Through a critical discourse analysis this thesis illuminates how news media in Alberta and Manitoba disseminate controlling images of indigenous peoples and their children. I argue that the discourses in both provinces normalize the removal of indigenous children while naturalizing colonial control.
The story on hand does not concern indigenous peoples. Rather, it concerns a reclusive Orthodox Jewish community that has been under siege ever since Ontario Children’s Aid authorities launched a legal battle last year to seize custody of 14 children of the Lev Tahor community and send them into foster care in Quebec. As of December 2013, the situation was unresolved, and it had already begun to grow into an international incident.
In November 2013, 40 families from the Lev Tahor group “fled Quebec and re-located to Chatham amid a social services investigation,” CTV News reported. A Quebec court had ordered 14 children from the group into foster care.
The Religion News Service explains that about 150 members of the group Lev Tahor “decamped from a village north of Montreal to Chatham, Ontario, about 200 miles southwest of Toronto. Comprising about 40 families, the sect fled just before a Quebec court ordered 14 children into foster care. The children, from three families, range in age from 2 months to 16 years.”
The article continues on to explain that: “Quebec authorities said they had evidence of neglect, psychological abuse, poor health care and an education curriculum that fell below the province’s standards.”
As the story progressed, some among the mainstream press were quick to brand the group as “radical” due to its orthodox beliefs, the Toronto Star among them. Nevertheless, the Star itself conceded that: “Officials have said they were unable to find any evidence of direct child physical abuse.”
The Toronto Star, in the same article, went on to describe a statement posted by the group on its web site as “rambling and often difficult-to-understand,” even as it conceded parenthetically that “most members speak only Yiddish or Hebrew.”
When read in the light of the understanding that it was written by someone to whom English is a second language, it doesn’t seem to be “rambling and often difficult-to-understand” at all.
The Times of Israel pulled no punches in its coverage of the story, branding the group as a “Taliban-style Hasidic sect,” while going so far as to castigate their religious leader as holding out an “extremist ultra-Orthodox” philosophy.
“The Quebec social services found very minor things, like a single dirty mattress. They did not find any evidence of abuse, none. They found a few minor issues and we are cooperating fully to fix them. The only reason we left was because of education,” the group’s leader, Shlomo Helbrans said to reporters from The Times of Israel.
That seems to be the crucial point that is lost on many who have provided coverage of the story. Indeed, film crews and photographs reveal children who appear to happy and healthy, at work, at prayer, and at play.
Other reports would bear this out. In early December of last year, a justice of the peace in Chatham denied permission to the Children’s Aid Society to remove the children from the Lev Tahor homes. The Children’s Aid Society appealed, and a hearing was set for December 23. However, CBC News Windsor reported on December 16 that two children had been removed by Children’s Aid, the order of the justice of the peace notwithstanding.
Apparently another court did not share the concerns of the Children’s Aid Society when it came to the drastic step of removing children from the community. On December 17, CTV News reported that:
Children belonging to the Jewish sect Lev Tahor will be returned to their parents with conditions, after being taken into protective custody by Chatham-Kent Children’s Services last week.
CTV’s Rich Garton was at a Chatham-Kent courthouse where a decision was made Tuesday, to return the children to their families. Two children were removed by child services on Thursday.
On December 23, CTV News reported that a judge ruled the media could have access to the story, as well as court documents related to the case, as the matter was one of public interest. This came with the stipulation that names of witnesses and the children would go unreported. That court was also apparently unsympathetic to the urgency of the concerns raised by the Children’s Aid Society, as the case was adjourned until January 10 of 2014.
I’m sure it must be a wonderful thing to have your secluded community packed with film crews and photographers. To the extent that the Lev Tahor community members have any say in the matter, one may reasonably suppose that they want the world to see that their children are anything but endangered, so they allow the intrusions. When my 19-year-old daughter watched a clip of the children at play last December, she said: “They look like normal, happy kids playing – except they’re all wearing black clothes.”
I don’t pretend that it’s possible to be completely color-blind, or unaware of how people wear their hair, or of how they dress. But it is possible not to be a racist. And it is possible to respect, or at least to tolerate, sometimes-extreme differences of opinion regarding politics and religion.
To cast any group as being so unusual that they are worthy of being branded as “Taliban-style” is the worst kind of journalism. And, when it is done in such a manner as to suggest that a religious sect is so different that they may on some level or another deserve to have their children removed, it becomes a bottom-of-the-barrel kind of yellow journalism.
In any event, on April 2nd of this year, the Montreal Gazette reported that: “The Canadian Border Services Agency has made a series of arrests at the Jewish, ultraorthodox Lev Tahor community compound near Chatham.”
A spokesperson for the Border Services said that the Enforcement and Intelligence office of the agency for the southern Ontario region “executed a number of warrants” for suspected violations under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act. I wonder why it took them so long to do that?
The Montreal Gazette reported on May 14 of this year:
The Quebec Human Rights Commission will study what went wrong in the case of an extremist Jewish sect that fled Ste-Agathe-des-Monts to avoid a hearing in Youth Court.
Last November, a group of about 250 members of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish sect Lev Tahor left the Laurentians town after 12 years to relocate in Chatham-Kent, Ont. They had been due in court to respond to allegations of child abuse and neglect made by Quebec’s Department of Youth Protection.
After several court hearings, the Ontario courts have ruled it would not be in the best interests of the children to execute an order made by Quebec’s youth court to return 14 children to the province and place them in foster care. Chatham-Kent’s Children’s Services has also refused to execute a warrant to remove all 127 children from the community, also issued by the Quebec court in November. That warrant is still outstanding.
“We’re not going to make a judgment about the Lev Tahor intervention, but rather to examine whether we’re well-equipped for these situations in Quebec,” said Camil Picard, the commission’s vice-president who deals with youth protection matters, according to an article in the Windsor Star.
“The commission has to assure that all young people in Quebec in all communities see their rights respected. We want to know that the actors have what they need to intervene in assuring children’s rights are protected.”
On May 16th, the Globe and Mail reported that some members of the Lev Tahor were looking at Guatemala as a possible place to find refuge.
An entire community of reclusive people – yes, Orthodox and Jewish – stands terrorized at the prospect of losing first their children, then their remaining freedoms. They look to Guatemala from Canada as a prospect for finding peace. Meanwhile, some members of the news media – and by no means do I mean all of them – continue to report the story with a particular angle that somehow or other seems to make the situation more palatable for the larger body of their respective readerships.
I continue to hold out hope that the Quebec Human Rights Commission will, at minimum, provide a full accounting of all that has transpired.
Full Episode: Lev Tahor
Published on Feb 22, 2014
In this episode of 16×9: Chief Correspondent, Carolyn Jarvis travels to Lev Tahor — an Ultra Orthodox Jewish Sect in Chatham-Kent, Ontario — where 16×9 was granted unprecedented access. For a week we documented their culture and traditions, and bring you a candid look at what Lev Tahor is all about.