For more than four months, the 200 members of Lev Tahor have slept fitfully, worried the morning would bring another raid.
Their anxieties stem from the constant presence of child-welfare officials and a pending court order for the seizure of 14 children from the controversial ultra-Orthodox Jewish sect.
On Wednesday morning, part of those fears were realized when a flotilla of vehicles from the Canadian Border Services Agency, Chatham-Kent Children’s Services and the Chatham-Kent Police Services rolled into Lev Tahor’s cluster of bungalows on the outskirts of Chatham, Ont.
“It was our worst nightmare come true,” said community member Avraham Dinkel. “We feared this day would come.”
But, contrary to expectations, it wasn’t the kids they were after. Agents with the CBSA’s Enforcement and Intelligence office arrested seven adults for suspected immigration violations. The agency refused to talk about the arrests, issuing a cursory press release that noted agents are “authorized to arrest permanent residents and foreign nationals who have, or who may have, breached the [Immigration and Refugee Protection] Act.” By law, all the detained adults will appear before the Immigration and Refugee Board within the next two days.
It has been long known that community members carry passports from several nations. The peripatetic group started in Israel during the mid-1980s under Rabbi Shlomo Helbrans before migrating to Brooklyn, N.Y. They returned to Israel after Mr. Helbrans was deported for a kidnapping conviction and then began moving to a settlement in Ste-Agathe-des-Monts, Que., about a decade ago.
A CBC documentary that aired in February alleged that Mr. Helbrans bribed a witness to testify in his favour as part of the rabbi’s Canadian refugee application.
The arrest on Wednesday has left 19 children in the community without both parents and nine others without one of their parents. Child-welfare workers took several children under supervision at Chatham-Kent Children’s Services head offices, but the agency’s director was hopeful they would be returned quickly.
“We’re negotiating with families in the community for the return of the children,” said Chatham-Kent Children’s Services director Stephen Doig on Wednesday evening. “We hope none of them will be in our care by the end of the day.”
Mr. Doig said it still was unclear how long the adults would remain in custody. “We don’t know if this is long term or short term,” he said. “So we’re not sure yet whether we should apprehend [children] or whether we should hold them in a babysitting capacity pending the CBSA investigation.”
If Chatham-Kent Children’s Services does end up formally apprehending any of the children, they will become part of a drawn-out custody battle between Lev Tahor and child-protection agencies in two provinces.
Judges in Quebec ordered 14 children placed in temporary foster care because of allegations of neglect, abuse and lack of education up to provincial standards.
The leaders thought they could escape the unfavourable judgment by abandoning their Quebec enclave for the more flexible education laws of Ontario. But an Ontario court endorsed the decision in February. Lev Tahor is appealing the decisions. Final arguments are set for April 4.
Chatham-Kent Children’s Services already have seven Lev Tahor children under agency care. They were seized after Trinidadian border officials foiled one Lev Tahor family’s attempt to flee Canada for Guatemala just days ahead of the appeal date. Another family made it to Guatemala, where a local court is reviewing the Canadian case against them.