Authorities were planning a Monday meeting to address the case of an ultra-Orthodox Jewish sect that abruptly left Quebec for Ontario last week.
Members of the group, known as the Lev Tahor, are under investigation by social services in Quebec for alleged child neglect.
The group, totalling about 200 people, packed up and drove to Chatham, Ont., in the middle of the night, in advance of court hearings for some of the families scheduled later in the week.
Denis Baraby, director of youth protection for Quebec’s Laurentians region, says there are concerns about the health and education of the children and the hearings were to ensure child services had regular access to the families.
“There were health issues, hygiene issues, the houses were dirty with garbage everywhere,” Baraby said in an interview.
Education was another issue, Baraby said. The children were home schooled and “not even capable of doing basic math.”
Baraby said youth services hadn’t reached the point of trying to remove any children from the community.
Nachman Helbrans, a spokesman for Lev Tahor, denies children are subject to neglect.
Helbrans said community members hope they can freely educate their children in Ontario according to their religious beliefs.
For now, some families are staying in local motels in Chatham and Windsor in Southern Ontario, while others have already leased homes in the area, he said.
Speaking by phone from Windsor, Helbrans said community members are open to compromise, but they hope to educate their children in Ontario according to their religious beliefs.
“We have nothing against the state of Quebec, beside the laws for education,” said Helbrans, 32, who has eight children of his own.
“Quebec has laws that doesn’t give freedom of religion as most people understand it.”
A spokeswoman for Chatham police said the force is aware the group is staying in the municipality and has been in touch with Quebec authorities.
Baraby said information from the investigation in Quebec has been passed on to youth services in Ontario and a conference call is planned for Monday to evaluate the situation.
The Lev Tahor, which means “pure heart,” came to Canada in 2005, after their spiritual leader Rabbi Shlomo Elbarnes was granted refugee status here.
Members of the anti-Zionist group, which opposes Israel and advocates Arab domination in the region, settled in Ste. Agathe, Que.
Elbarnes, who also goes by the last name Helbrans and is Nachman’s father, made headlines in the United States in 1994 when he was convicted of kidnapping a teenaged boy. The boy was studying under him in Brooklyn.
After serving his sentence, Elbarnes was deported to Israel. He then entered Canada on a temporary visa.
A federal court ruling in 2005 upholding Elbarnes’s refugee status in Canada found that he could not be considered safe in Israel, in part because his “religious belief and opinion are against the mere existence of Israel as an independent country.”