Nine members of the controversial Lev Tahor Jewish sect have fled Canada while a court hears arguments on whether to remove 14 children from the ultraconservative community.
The group boarded WestJet Flight 2772 from Toronto to Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, on Monday, but border officials denied them entry to the Caribbean nation, according to an airline spokesman. The group has refused orders to board a plane back to Canada. Under international aviation rules, WestJet must pay their living expenses as long as the group is held in Port of Spain.
The group was in transit to Guatemala when immigration officials at Port of Spain's Piarco International Airport stopped them, the Trinidad Ministry of National Security said in a statement.
The Lev Tahor travellers were denied entry because they gave inconsistent answers when interviewed by immigration, the statement said.
The flight to Trinidad is the latest chapter in the Lev Tahor saga that has involved a series of migrations – from the U.S. to Israel to Quebec to Ontario. The community was based in the Laurentians town of Ste-Agathe-des-Monts, north of Montreal, until it moved to the Chatham-Kent area, near Windsor, Ont., last November, citing fears Quebec officials would remove the children.
News of the most recent departure only emerged when members of the group failed to attend court for a child-removal case on Wednesday morning.
Judges in Ontario and Quebec have ordered 14 of the children placed in temporary foster care because of allegations of neglect and abuse. The judgments, which are being appealed, require regular contact with the local child-welfare agency and include a ban on travel beyond the Chatham-Kent area.
"We now apparently have those children missing in defiance of that court order," said Stephen Doig, executive director of Chatham-Kent Children's Services. "We would certainly have some concerns about the welfare of those children."
Reached by phone, one of the Lev Tahor representatives, Uriel Goldman, did not want to comment on whether the two families targeted by the court order had indeed left for Trinidad. Asked whether the 14 children were still in Chatham, he said, "I don't think so."
He defended their parents. "They're very responsible people, they know what they're doing," he said, adding that he could not say where they were now.
The 200-strong community has felt under attack for months, he said.
"The whole community has a lot of children who are under a tremendous amount of pressure from a lot of government agencies, day and night. They are in a panic," Mr. Goldman said.
On Wednesday, Chatham-Kent police squad cars were present outside homes of the community. A police spokeswoman said the officers were there to back up the Chatham-Kent Children's Services.
"We are acting as a support agency," said Constable Renee Cowell. "We are making sure that we are in the area to keep the peace."