The only black member of the Nova Scotia cabinet was moved to tears Friday as he stood in the legislature to announce that a gut-wrenching, three-year inquiry into abuse at an orphanage for black children had entered its final phase.
Tony Ince, minister of African Nova Scotian affairs, had to pause and take a deep breath before tabling an interim report that spells out the actions the government has already taken to combat systemic racism.
“I apologize for the delay,” he said, his voice breaking, as Premier Stephen McNeil turned in his seat and offered a supportive fist bump. “I didn’t expect it to affect me this way.”
Ince said the public inquiry has provided the government with the opportunity to “build relationships, to listen, to learn and to understand in a way that puts children and family first.”
“In order to create meaningful change for Nova Scotians and especially African Nova Scotians, we must continue to address inequity, systemic racism and discrimination in all institutions across the province.”
The Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children opened in 1921 and was initially seen as a significant achievement by the African Nova Scotian community. But the institution has since become a symbol of the province’s ongoing struggle with racial discrimination.
After the home was closed in the 1980s, residents started to come forward to say they suffered physical, psychological and sexual abuse over several decades, prompting class-action lawsuits, a formal apology from McNeil in 2014 and an eventual settlement worth $34 million.
The premier established the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children Restorative Inquiry in 2015.
It has already produced a number of reports, including the one released Friday, and the premier confirmed its final report and recommendations will be submitted by the end of June, once it has completed its last phase: planning and action.
“We have come to understand the important place the home has in African Nova Scotian history and culture,” McNeil told the legislature.
“This story is one of institutional and systemic failure to provide care, a failure to meet human needs and how this failure reflects and contributes to the context of systemic racism.”
A report issued in January 2018 found that a culture of silence and shame allowed the abuse to persist, and it said racism in Nova Scotia continues to breed mistrust and fear of public agencies.
The latest report says the provincial government has expanded a program aimed at keeping children with their families and is providing more financial assistance to families to prevent children at risk from coming into care.
A new program called Alternative Family Care has offered financial assistance and other supports to 290 children and their families since December.
“This assistance helps to reduce the stress on a parent or guardian who is unable to care for their children financially,” the report says.
“Knowing that their children are being supported at home, parents or guardians can focus on getting the help they need to solve the problems that put their children at risk of being taken into care.”
As well, a new “restorative initiatives unit” has been established within the Justice Department, and the Office of African Nova Scotian Affairs has been expanded to provide more outreach.
Tony Smith, a former resident of the Halifax-area orphanage and co-chairman of the inquiry’s steering committee, said he was encouraged by the changes.
“There have been things done in real time … and I’ve seen attitudes change,” he said. “I’ve seen people’s willingness to change the culture.”
In particular, he said the government appears to have learned that its departments and agencies have too often operated in isolated “silos,” which has alienated them from the people they are intended to serve.
“They’ve already started that movement (to change), but it’s going to take time,” he said. “We never believed as former residents that we would ever see this and that our voices would matter.”