Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children inquiry to take longer than expected

An annual update on the inquiry into the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children says it will begin to bring former residents together to talk with other groups, including government departments.

Inquiry's 3rd and final phase to bring residents, government departments together

George Gray, left, Pamela Williams, centre, and Tony Smith, right, provide an update on the restorative inquiry into the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children on Friday. (Shaina Luck/CBC)

An annual update on the inquiry into the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children says the work will take longer than expected and has asked for its mandate to be extended by one year to March 2019.

The government is required to report annually what it has done to advance the restorative inquiry. The update released Friday relates to the progress of Phase 2, which more deeply examines the central issues identified during Phase 1. Those include:

  • Responses to institutionalized abuse.
  • Experiences of children and youth in the care of the province.
  • Historic and ongoing impacts of systemic racism on African-Nova Scotians.

Phase 3, the planning and action phase, is expected to be underway by spring.

The home opened in Dartmouth in 1921. Residents of the orphanage suffered physical, psychological and sexual abuse by staff over a 50-year period, until the 1980s.

The former Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children in Dartmouth. (CBC)

The provincial government announced the inquiry in June 2015, after issuing a formal apology to former residents of the home. It was originally expected to last between October 2015 and March 2018, at a cost of $5 million.

Despite the one-year extension request, the inquiry said its budget will stay the same.

The first phase of the inquiry involved talking separately with groups such as former residents, child welfare agencies and government departments. 

"In this [second] phase, we are working to strengthen these relationships as we deepen our learning and understanding together," the report states. 

The inquiry plans to hold several meetings to start to bring those groups together. As well, the inquiry will continue researching in the home's historical archives.

Common themes among former residents

The report goes into some detail about the common themes that have emerged from sharing circles with former residents, which it called an important step in helping determine the central issues.

These include feelings of helplessness and isolation, systemic neglect, silence, stigma and a lack of preparation for adult life.

The report says former residents described home workers pitting residents against each other and forcing children to fight their friends, thereby increasing feelings of isolation.

They were also separated from family members, such as brothers and sisters, and the process of entering care often went without explanation of what was happening or where they were going.

The co-chairs of the council leading the restorative inquiry are Tony Smith, a former resident, and Pamela Williams, chief justice of the provincial and family courts. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

"Many residents felt the adults in their lives turned a blind eye toward their suffering," the report reads. "For some former residents who transferred out of the home, this feeling continued in foster care, where they also experienced neglect and abuse."

But another common theme among the former residents is a desire to make a difference as adults.

"They always want to ensure that their kids never go through what we went through," said Tony Smith, one of the co-chairs of the council. 

"And if they're coming forward and they're going to tell their stories, they're going to tell their stories so that no kid, no matter what colour, no matter where you're from, what your background is, will be subjected to what we've been subjected to in the system."

No further harm

Smith said it's been difficult for some of the former residents of the home to speak about their stories, and many still struggle with feelings of shame and guilt.

The report also stresses the inquiry is committed to doing no further harm to former residents.

Justice Pamela Williams, the other co-chair of the council and the chief justice of provincial and family courts, said the restorative approach has also helped those who worked in child welfare, government or at the home itself. 

"That kind of an atmosphere, as well, invites people to be honest and to be accountable, to share what they know," she said. 

"Agencies, commissions, governments are often tasked with, 'Here's the problem, figure out how to solve it.' And often we don't spend enough time asking those affected by the issues, 'What impact did that have on you?'" 

3rd and final phase

Previously, some former residents of the orphanage said they want nothing to do with the restorative justice inquiry.

The third and final phase of planning and action is the phase that the restorative inquiry council said will take longer than expected.

Separately from the inquiry, former residents launched class-action lawsuits against the home and the provincial government, which eventually ended in settlements totalling $34 million.

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