Premier Stephen McNeil says a public inquiry into allegations of abuse at the Nova Scotia Home for Coloured Children could start next year.

McNeil said Thursday a full public inquiry could start in the spring, but he did not say he would drop government objections to a class-action lawsuit.

“We’ll let the courts deal with that. I think what you’ll find, the residents of the former Home for Colored Children will find, that there’s a very different tone coming from government,” he said. “Government has been part a lot of the discussions in an aggressive way — [that] needs to change.”

McNeil said his government is working with advocacy group Voices and the Department of Justice. He said he expects to have the terms of reference for a panel the previous NDP government set up by next week. He hopes to then set up the terms for the public inquiry by the end of the year. 

A spokesman in McNeil's office later said the government will have a look at the terms, but the plans for the panel will be scrapped.

"We won't be moving ahead with the panel, as it has no teeth legally," Kyley Harris said in an email. "There may be value in some of Wright's recommendations related to an inquiry."

The panel's terms of reference were drafted by Robert Wright, who spent three years implementing a provincial child and youth strategy following a public inquiry into the case of a young offender whose stolen car struck and killed a Halifax woman in 2004.

The panel was dismissed as ineffective by former residents.

Allegations of sexual, physical abuse

The previous NDP government opposed the lawsuit launched by about 155 former residents of the home. The lawsuit, which is before the courts, alleges residents of the home suffered years of sexual, physical and psychological abuse by staff over a 50-year period up until the 1980s.

The allegations have not been tested in court and lawyers for the government have argued that some of them are based on speculation or hearsay.

McNeil has not instructed the Justice Department to drop its objections. “This is a file I’m going to be taking a great deal of personal interest in. I think I’ve been very clear on the direction I want to go, but I think in fairness to the department I need to hear from them first,” he said

He hopes the public inquiry will start in the spring. He wants to make sure dispersed former residents have time to make arrangements to come to Nova Scotia to speak.

The current board of directors for the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children, which today is a short-term care home for children of all races, does not oppose the proposed inquiry

Opposition backs public inquiry

McNeil and Opposition Leader Jamie Baillie both committed to a public inquiry during the election campaign.

"I believe it is vitally important that the province of Nova Scotia move ahead with an inquiry into this matter and it must be an immediate priority for any new government after this election," McNeil said during the campaign.

He said an inquiry with the power to subpoena witnesses would be the best way of ensuring that those who need to answer questions about what is alleged to have happened at the orphanage do so.

with files from the Canadian Press