Shelburne School for Boys: Good intentions gone wrong? Or…?

Was the government’s compensation program crafted out of a well-intentioned desire to allow victims to tell their story “without a public spectacle” that would re-victimize them? Or in a desperate attempt to keep the public from ever learning the real story behind the abuse of children in care?

While pursuing something else entirely yesterday, I was reading through back copies of The 4th Estate, the lefty Halifax newspaper of the 1970s, and stumbled upon repeated references to the Shelburne School for Boys.

Tim Bousquet
“Morning File”
June 27, 2019

I was a reporter then. And there. But I’d forgotten — forgotten that The 4th Estate had been on top of that story before almost anyone understood it was a story, forgotten just how long it had taken after its first journalistic alarm bells about what had happened/was happening/would continue to happen for another 20 years to echo loudly enough to get the attention of the public and the powers that were in Nova Scotia.

And then…

What a mess it all became!

In 1995, 24 years after those initial reports, an official inquiry documented 89 cases of abuse at provincial institutions for children in trouble with the law, 69 of them at the Nova Scotia School for Boys in Shelburne. New Brunswick Judge Stuart Stratton, who headed the inquiry, found…

“… the Nova Scotia School for Boys at Shelburne was little more than a place for the warehousing of large numbers of wayward boys in inadequate facilities and in care of untrained and inexperienced staff; b) sexual and physical abuse took place at the School; and c) the staff of the School and officials in the Department of Community Services were aware that abuse was taking place.”

Consider just a few shocking examples of what was meant by “aware,” one from a decade before The 4th Estate first hinted at the scandal.

In 1961, the then-superintendent at the School complained to his boss about one of his counselors, Burton Smith, whose customary practice while lining up the boys in his charge was “to go down the line hitting each one on the head with a piece of broomstick or radiator brush.” The superintendent wanted the man fired or at least transferred. Instead, the local Tory MLA, James Harding — who’d help bring the job-generating School to small-town Shelburne in the first place — interceded with the then-minister in charge. “Mr. Smith is a longtime Conservative with a very large family of brothers and sisters,” Harding wrote, “and I feel that anything possible should be done for him to ensure not only his employment at the school but promotions when they come along.”

It was so… Nova Scotian.

Many of those who worked at the School in the sixties and seventies, in fact, were otherwise totally unqualified for their jobs and had been hired only because they voted the right way in the provincial election.

Huskilson

In 1975, Harding’s Liberal successor as MLA, Harold Huskilson — who was also the province’s minister of social services at the time — arranged for an admitted and then currently under-investigation sexual predator named Patrick MacDougall to be quietly transferred from his counseling post in Shelburne to a job as night watchman — with keys to the rooms where children slept — at a Cape Breton facility for profoundly mentally challenged youngsters.

MacDougall, of course, was a Liberal party supporter.

It took an official 1991 complaint from a man who’d been molested by MacDougall as a child to finally touch off an 18-month RCMP investigation that prompted other victims coming forward and blew the lid off the decades of abuse at the School and others like it in the province.

In response, the provincial justice department of the day created an alternate dispute resolution program to compensate victims. Ostensibly, the program was crafted out of a well-intentioned desire to allow victims to tell their story “without a public spectacle” that would re-victimize them.

Former residents could present un-sworn, un-cross-examined statements outlining abuse they claimed they’d suffered and collect compensation based on what became known as a “meat chart” of types and duration of abuse. Some of them even signed agreements stipulating that their allegations would not be investigated by the police.

While sensitivity in this pre-Me-too era may sound laudable, there was almost certainly another —and more to the point — explanation for the approach the justice department took. Given the reality that governments of both Liberal and Tory stripes had had a dark hand in the abuse, there was a desperate desire by all of them to contain the political fallout a fulsome public inquiry into the abuse would doubtless have generated.

More than 1,500 former residents eventually came forward with claims of abuse by nearly 400 current or former employees, who themselves were never offered a formal opportunity to respond to or refute the allegations against them.

Some of the abuse claims were almost certainly false. But which ones? And how many? And what did that mean for the other allegations of abuse?

Rummaging among the ruins of what had happened — and what had not — eventually led to a fascinating dueling war of perspectives and investigative reporting in the local daily newspapers of the day.

The late lamented Halifax Daily News championed the cause of the children who’d been abused — the paper and two of its then-journalists, reporter David Rodenhiser (now a senior communications advisor to Nova Scotia Power) and columnist Parker Donham (now a curmudgeonly conservative blogger), won a Michener Award for meritorious public service for their coverage — while the establishment Halifax Chronicle Herald mostly sided with the School’s employees, many of whom stood accused of abuse with no way to clear their names.

An internal government report that cited the lack of required corroboration later concluded “the Compensation Program was a catalyst for what appears to be a huge number of unsubstantiated allegations against both former and current staff… We believe that a strong possibility exists that many complainants have colluded or collaborated in the giving of false statements in order to receive compensation.”

Anne Derrick, who at the time represented more than 400 of the claimants and would later become one of the province’s most progressive judges, disputed the report’s conclusions in words that feel familiar in today’s sexual landscape:

“In the section where they talk about a lack of corroboration, there’s no analysis in the report at all about the nature of this kind of injury, no analysis about why people don’t come forward, why they might not have disclosed when they were children. There’s no contextualization of some of the inherent difficulties with respect to historic abuse cases. To suggest that the majority of these people have lied about what happened to them — I don’t accept that for a minute.”

To try and finally, once-and-for-all sort out the mess it had itself created with its flawed compensation process, the province eventually appointed yet another outside jurist, retired Quebec judge Fred Kaufman, to make sense of it all. He couldn’t. After two years and a 681-page report,  Kaufman concluded in 2002: “This report cannot begin to separate true and false claims of abuse,” he said. “In the end, everyone suffered…”

Everyone did. The guards, who could never crawl out from under the cloud of suspicion they were among the abusers even if they weren’t. And the former residents themselves, who are even to this day more likely to be regarded as scam artists than real child victims of sexual abusers, even when they were.

It is now nearly 50 years since those first stories appeared in The 4th Estate. And it all still feels somehow unsatisfying, unfinished.

You can find a fascinating photo essay on the long-since abandoned Shelburne School for Boys at https://www.urbexplayground.com/rurex/shelburne-abandoned-youth-centre

This column originally appeared in the Halifax Examiner July 2, 2019.

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