An ultra-Orthodox Jewish community of 200 people who had a long-running disagreement with Quebec child-protection officials has abruptly left its base north of Montreal and moved to the Chatham-Kent area in southwestern Ontario.
An anti-Zionist Hasidic group that shuns outsiders, the Lev Tahor made headlines two years ago when Canadian immigration agents intercepted two teenaged girls heading to the community and returned them to Israel under a court order.
The community had drawn the attention of provincial officials since 2005, when it settled in Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts.
Reached by phone in Chatham, where some have already bought houses and others were at two local motels, a community member said there had been disputes over education curriculum and fears that children would be taken into foster care.
"They're forcing us to learn things that are against our religion, like evolution, like homosexuality," Uriel Goldman said.
Quebec authorities say their investigation dealt not just with education matters but with concerns that children lived in squalid, isolated conditions and were not taught basic life skills.
"The schooling matter is one issue but not the only. There were important shortcomings, serious negligence," said Denis Baraby, director of Centre jeunesse des Laurentides.
"Their children, even at age 10 or 12, wouldn't be even be able in an emergency to ask for help."
He said officials who visited the community reported overcrowded conditions, children sleeping in urine-soaked beds, schooling done solely in Yiddish, without proper math or language instruction.
The court dates given to the two families were not for the purpose of taking the children away but to obtain a judicial mandate that would enable officials to get social workers to visit regularly and force adults to enroll in parenting classes, Mr. Baraby said.
Mr. Goldman had tried to make compromises, acquiring math and English books to be translated into Yiddish.
However, he said, the community had for the past six months started to look at places to resettle. It hired a real-estate agent and checked out Ontario municipalities such as Peterborough, Morrisburg and Picton, Mr. Goldman said.
The community decided the time to move had come when it heard of the court dates for two of its families last Thursday. During the weekend, it rented coach buses and trucks. "On Monday, the two families were residents of Ontario," Mr. Goldman said.
The whole community of 200, half of whom are children, moved to Chatham that weekend. Most have already moved into Chatham residences while the remainder are waiting at two motels, the Kent and the Super 8.
Chatham-Kent Police Service have been in contact with the group and confirms that they are in the area, said a spokesman, Constable Brian Boulley.
"This matter is a children's aid investigation and the Chatham-Kent police will support the investigation if we are required," he said. "However, at this point it is not a police investigation."
An official for Chatham-Kent Children's Services, Shelley Thibert, said her agency was aware of the Lev Tahor's arrival. "We have been in contact with the authorities in Montreal," she said, declining to comment further.
Mr. Baraby said his agency has been in contact with its Chatham counterpart.
The Lev Tahor came to Canada in 2005, following their spiritual leader, Rabbi Shlomo Elbarnes.
Mr. Elbarnes was convicted in 1994 by a U.S. court of kidnapping a 13-year-old boy who was studying with him; he fled to Canada in 2001 on a temporary visa. In 2005, the Federal Court upheld a decision that granted Mr. Elbarnes refugee status.
The group believes that the existence of the state of Israel is an insult to the teachings of the Torah since Israel cannot become a nation until the Messiah arrives.
The members of Lev Tahor believe that "Arab domination of the land must be accepted by Jews and that they must leave Israel or perish," the Federal Court ruling noted.
On its website, the group had warned earlier this year that it was willing to relocate.
"We are in exile and therefore we are committed to the laws of the country where we live, however, we have the choice to move to a state [where the] laws are not contradicted to the spirit of the Torah and Judaism," it said.