News / Halifax

Nova Scotia plagued by systemic racism, new report from orphanage inquiry says

Tony Smith and Pamela Williams, chief judge of the provincial and family court, co-chairs of the Council of Parties, the governing body for the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children Restorative Inquiry, attend a news conference, in Halifax on Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2017. A preliminary report from the inquiry says systemic racism continues to have a major impact on African Nova Scotians. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan

Tony Smith and Pamela Williams, chief judge of the provincial and family court, co-chairs of the Council of Parties, the governing body for the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children Restorative Inquiry, attend a news conference, in Halifax on Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2017. A preliminary report from the inquiry says systemic racism continues to have a major impact on African Nova Scotians. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan

HALIFAX — African Nova Scotians continue to grapple with systemic racism in a province that has a long history of discrimination, a new report says.

A preliminary report from the restorative inquiry into abuse at the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children orphanage said some black people attending its information sessions were reluctant to interact with public agencies because they feel they are treated as "second-class citizens."

The 16-page document also said participants noted African Nova Scotians continue to be over-represented in the child welfare and correctional systems, and black children are suspended at disproportionate rates.

"We heard very clearly from the African Nova Scotian community that the impact of systemic discrimination still plagues us," said Tony Smith, a former resident of the home and a member of the inquiry’s governing council.

"It shows up very differently in the various regions, especially in rural areas."

The report said many people stressed that these issues are not new, and quoted one participant: "It feels like we're talking about the things we were talking about 40 years ago."

The inquiry was launched in 2015 with 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.

Premier Stephen McNeil apologized in October 2014 for the abuse, acknowledging that the pleas of former residents went unanswered in what he described as a chapter in the province's history of systemic racism.

Nova Scotia's first black lieutenant-governor, Mayann Francis, said last year the province is in a state of denial when it comes to racial profiling, saying she had often been the victim of "shopping while black."

And last month, African-Nova Scotian social justice advocates called on Halifax Regional Police to suspend their use of street checks after statistics showed black people in Nova Scotia were three times more likely to be stopped than white people.

"We're not going to be able to remove 400 years of racism during the two and a half years during this mandate," Pamela Williams, chief judge of the provincial and family courts and another member of the inquiry council, said at a news conference Wednesday.

"But what we can do is establish a new way of doing business and a new way of moving forward."

Williams stressed that this is not a typical public inquiry: The framework takes a unique collaborative approach that will help rebuild relationships between African Nova Scotians, government, public agencies and the community.

So far, that has included information sessions and meetings with former residents, black youth, community organizations and health care providers, among others.

Deputy Premier Diana Whalen said the province has been contacted by other jurisdictions who are interested in learning more about this type of inquiry.

"It's never been done before ... This is not a traditional inquiry where there are lawyers and it becomes very much a part of the legal system," said Whalen in a phone interview Wednesday. "This is about rebuilding relationships and using a restorative approach."

The inquiry will now hold sharing circles with former residents on their experiences with caregivers, the education and justice systems, and the community. It will also catalogue and examine records of the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children, dating back to its inception in 1921.

The inquiry's task group — which works with the community and public agencies to identify possible actions and plans — is expected to issue a report on its work to date to the legislature in the spring.

The inquiry will continue until spring 2018.

The Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children now operates as the Akoma Family Centre, a short-term care centre for children.

In March 2012, the RCMP and Halifax police began urging people to come forward with their allegations of abuse.

Investigators interviewed 40 complainants in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Quebec, Ontario and Alberta, but by December of that year police said the information collected didn't support the laying of criminal charges because it could not be corroborated.

Class-action lawsuits were launched by the former residents against the home and the provincial government, which eventually ended in settlements totalling $34 million.

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