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Lev Tahor members leave Canada before appeal

Lev Tahor members leave Canada before appealMembers of the Lev Tahor ultra-orthodox Jewish sect walk down a street while an emergency motion in the child custody case is held at the courthouse in Chatham, Ont., Wednesday, March 5, 2014. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Dave Chidley

CHATHAM, Ont. - Two families in an ultra-orthodox Jewish sect whose children were ordered removed from their custody have left Canada before a court here could decide whether to execute that order, according to an email obtained by The Canadian Press.

An Ontario judge ordered last month that 13 Lev Tahor children be turned over to child protection authorities in Quebec, where the community had previously been based, and where a court had ordered they be placed in foster care.

An appeal of that order was scheduled to be heard Wednesday in Chatham, Ont., but instead a lawyer for the local children's aid authority brought an emergency motion, which prompted a closed-door hearing with the judge.

The Canadian Press obtained an email from a member of the community to supporters, detailing how two of the families at the centre of the order left Canada ahead of an appeal. The email indicates they were not eager to return willingly if the appeal did not go their way, though they had return tickets for March 13.

"The families choose to be on a vacation tour in the Caribbean on the time of the appeal hearing, to wait out for the decision of the appeal, if they see that the Ontario can force them back to Quebec, they will decide whatsoever to return to Ontario or even to Canada," reads the email.

They were going to Guatemala, some of the group via Mexico and the others via Trinidad and Tobago, the email said.

The group of nine — three adults and six children — that went through Trinidad was detained "for no reason," the email said. Immigration authorities there wanted to send them back to Canada, but they wanted to be permitted to join the others in Guatemala, it said. The members of one family are American citizens and the others are Israeli citizens, he wrote, so they dispute that they should be sent to Canada.

A security guard at a hotel located north of the main international airport in Piarco, Trinidad, said he had been tasked with watching over a group of Jewish people from Canada. When The Canadian Press asked to speak with a member of the group, the security guard said they were busy praying.

The group retained a lawyer in Trinidad, and a letter from him to that country's minister of national security was attached to the email. In the letter, Farai Hove Masaisai said he had not been given a reason for the group's detention and alleged they were being poorly treated and underfed.

"The manner in which they were treated personally brought me to a fundamental low and made me heavily embarrassed and ashamed to call myself a Trinidadian," he wrote.

When contacted by The Canadian Press, Masaisai said he could not comment because the case was before the courts.

It's not clear from the email if all of the 13 children have left Canada, but members of the community at the housing complex where they are living in Chatham either said they could not talk or did not know where the children were.

The card of a child protection worker was left in the door of one residence, where no one appeared to be home.

A lawyer for Lev Tahor was scheduled to argue an appeal of a previous court order Wednesday, but instead a lawyer for the Chatham-Kent Children's Services brought the emergency motion.

Superior Court Judge Lynda Templeton excluded members of the media from the hearing because she thought the presence of journalists "would cause harm to a child who is the subject of the proceeding."

"I am not at liberty to disclose the nature of that harm because that forms part of the evidence," she said.

Several media outlets have covered previous hearings in the ongoing saga in both Ontario and Quebec. Templeton made an order at the end of the day dealing with "the apprehension of the children who are the subject of this appeal," but the court refused to release that order to reporters until Thursday.

The actual appeal is now scheduled to be heard April 4.

Templeton said the emergency motion brought by the children's aid society is "separate and apart from the appeal, however falls within the umbrella of the same proceeding, but concerns different issues than the appeal, from a legal perspective."

Much of the Lev Tahor 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.

In their absence, the court in Quebec ruled in November that the children be placed in foster care for 30 days, but the insular community had already settled in Chatham.

The community maintains that the move from Quebec had been planned for some time as they felt persecuted in the province, especially in the light of a proposed secular charter.

The judge concluded however that the Lev Tahor members fled the pending court case because of the possibility their children would be removed from their homes.

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 group says the other children, not subject to the order, have been traumatized by the experience. One young man in the community showed a picture of young children who he says wake up crying in the night.

The Lev Tahor, which means "pure heart,'' came to Canada in 2005 after their spiritual leader, Rabbi Shlomo Elbarnes, was granted refugee status here.

The courts have heard that children's aid has intervened with the community in the past.

Testimony from social workers highlighted concerns that the community is almost completely isolated from the outside world and the children are terrified of others who are not modestly dressed or "pure.'' When reporters went to the community Wednesday, some children peeked curiously from behind curtains while others waved and smiled.

The leader makes all decisions, a social worker told an earlier court hearing, and some girls are married as teenagers.

- With files from Diana Mehta in Toronto.

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