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Nova Scotia report calls for reckoning on legacy of systemic racism

The Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children is seen in Dartmouth, N.S., on Jan. 8, 2013.


A culture of silence and shame allowed the abuse of orphans to persist for decades at the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children, according to a new report that calls for a province-wide reckoning with the historic legacy of systemic racism.

The second report by the public inquiry into abuses at the Halifax-area orphanage said racism in Nova Scotia continues to breed mistrust and sometimes even fear of public agencies.

Former residents of the home told the inquiry they felt abandoned by the systems designed to protect them, allowing the abuse to go unchecked and unreported for so long.

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Former residents described the trauma of entering care, with police and social workers telling them they were "just going for a drive" or "going to the store" before dropping them off without explanation at the orphanage, the report said.

They also said they felt a sense of helplessness at the orphanage, which opened in 1921.

Some staff members pitted residents against each other and forced children to fight their friends, damaging any bonds they had and increasing their feelings of isolation, the report said.

"Many residents felt the stigma of being 'Home children' followed them at school and in the broader community," the 17-page report released Friday said. "They believe that teachers and educators who noticed their health or behaviour issues, and police who regularly returned runaways to the Home, also knew to some degree that things were not right at the Home."

Check-ins from social workers were rare, and almost never conducted without the presence of an orphanage worker, the report said.

"Residents felt they had no safe outlet to tell anyone what they were experiencing without fear of further harm," the report said. They felt like the adults in their lives "turned a blind eye toward their suffering."

The report by the restorative inquiry, made up of former residents, members of the African Nova Scotian community and the government, was released by inquiry co-chairpersons Tony Smith, and Pamela Williams, chief judge of the provincial and family courts.

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The inquiry, which was launched in late 2015, has a mandate to examine the experience of former residents of the Halifax orphanage, and systemic discrimination and racism throughout the province.

Former residents say they were subjected to physical, psychological and sexual abuse over several decades up until the 1980s – something Premier Stephen McNeil formally apologized for in October 2014. Class-action lawsuits launched by former residents against the home and the provincial government ended in settlements totalling $34-million.

The inquiry's next report is expected to focus on planning and action, including examining the province's current care system and how issues identities by former residents persist today.

"Understanding and addressing historic and ongoing impacts of systemic racism on African Nova Scotians, while necessarily rooted in both past and present experiences, is a critical lens necessary to create meaningful change for the future," the report said.

The inquiry has made a request to the province to extend its original mandate, noting that it will require additional time to prepare a comprehensive "plan for action."

The report identified three central issues to focus the inquiry's remaining work: Responses to institutionalized abuse, experiences of children and youth in care of the province, and historic and ongoing impacts of systemic racism against African Nova Scotians.

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"Former residents have told us they want this inquiry to lead to positive changes for children in care today, so no child goes through what many of us experienced as children," Smith said in a press release.

The inquiry's work follows three main phases: Relationship building, learning and understanding and planning and action. The report released Friday highlights the inquiry's work on the learning and understanding phase.

"We're pleased with the way partners are engaging together in the work of the inquiry," Williams said in a press release. "One of the unique features of this process is we are investing time and energy in building relationships that will help us act together to begin to make changes during the mandate of the inquiry. This will also lay the groundwork for continuing action once the inquiry is over."

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