Breaking the silence on abuse

Stories of violence at a Halifax home for black children spur calls for an inquiry
Jane Armstrong

Former residents of the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children have vivid memories of the three-storey, shingled building outside Halifax. Harriet Johnson was eight years old when, in 1977, a social worker drove her past the pillared gates up the long, steep driveway. “She said: ‘This is going to be your new home,’ ” says Johnson, 43, who was seized by provincial authorities from her New Glasgow home when her alcoholic grandfather—her sole guardian—couldn’t care for her.

Within a week, Johnson was beaten with a belt for wetting her bed. At age 9, she says a staff member raped her in a car behind a Dartmouth junior high school. It was the first of many brutal attacks. “I screamed and screamed and begged him to stop,” Johnson wrote in searing 16-page affidavit, one of scores of signed documents from nearly 100 former orphanage residents, alleging physical and sexual abuse at the provincially funded institution. The oldest complaints stem from incidents that date to the late 1930s.

The affidavits form the basis for a class-action suit, which alleges that provincial authorities and home directors ignored widespread abuse and neglect. Though none of the allegations have been proven in court, the case has stirred up emotions in Nova Scotia, where race remains a touchy—often explosive—subject.

Nearly all the former residents are black or mixed race, even though, by the mid-1960s, the home housed white children too. Plaintiffs say the abuse went unchecked, in part, because they were black. Even the use of the word “colored” in the home’s name suggests a pre-civil rights mentality, Johnson says. “I believe this was about racism.”

For years, there were whispers that children at the orphanage were subject to cruelty and neglect. In the late 1990s, former residents began to speak publicly about their treatment. They contacted Halifax lawyer Ray Wagner, who, in 2001, filed the first of dozens of individual lawsuits against the home and provincial authorities. But Wagner says the cases stalled, as did attempts to pry documents from the province.

Last year, Wagner chose a new tack. He filed a class-action suit against the home, later adding the province as a defendant. All told 33 people have signed on, including Johnson. A certification hearing has been scheduled for June 2013 in Nova Scotia Supreme Court. Meanwhile, the individual cases of 56 residents are still before the courts.

The latest allegations have roused police and politicians. An integrated RCMP and Halifax Regional Police sexual assault unit is now investigating 38 complaints. Last week, a series in the Halifax Chronicle-Herald prompted opposition MLAs to call for an inquiry. “If you look at some of the documents, a person can become horrified,” says Progressive Conservative community services critic Keith Bain. He said an inquiry could address complaints faster than the courts. “We have to look at the human aspect of the whole thing. If an inquiry is going to speed up that process of healing that’s what should be done.”

For its part, the home has denied all allegations and argues that too much time has passed to properly investigate the claims. “In many cases, the workers who were at the home at the time are deceased,” says John Kulik, the home’s lawyer.

Wagner disagrees and says the case “is no longer about compensation. It’s about addressing a past wrong.” The home, he says, was chronically underfunded, receiving a fraction of the money that institutions serving white children received.

From its inception in 1921, the home was conceived as a humane refuge for orphaned and homeless black children who would otherwise be sent to mental institutions or poorhouses. As such, it was a source of pride among Nova Scotia’s black community.

That pride kept Tony Smith silent for decades. Smith, 53, spent three years in the home in the mid-1960s. He says he was fondled by female staffers and forced to participate in Sunday afternoon fight clubs. Smith never told a soul until a reporter working on a story about the building’s heritage status contacted him in 1998. “I said: ‘I don’t mind telling you my story, but it may not be the story you want to hear.’ ” Smith then went to police but says he was told his story was too old and the details too sketchy.

Today, the building is boarded up. The home has changed its name and moved to new headquarters, but still serves families in Dartmouth.

Smith wants the home and province to acknowledge the dreadful conditions that young, vulnerable children were subjected to. “I believe personally that in order for these things to be discouraged in the future, there must be compensation and an apology,” Smith says.