When he was still the opposition leader, Stephen McNeil met with former residents of the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children. He listened to their claims that, as mostly black and often orphaned children, they’d been subject to physical, sexual and psychological abuse at the hands of their mostly black caregivers and, worse, that their complaints had been dismissed or ignored by decades of white Liberal and Conservative politicians and bureaucrats who were supposed to protect them.
During last fall’s election campaign, McNeil promised to reverse the then-NDP government’s tone-deaf policy of legally challenging certification of the former residents’ class action lawsuit on the grounds that some of the allegations were necessarily based on hearsay or speculation.
As premier, McNeil promised what he called a “respectful” conclusion.
And last week, he delivered.
The department of justice announced a tentative $29-million settlement involving more than 150 former residents, and likely at least as many more who are expected to ultimately join in the class action.
It is another stop on a long, painful journey that began in 1998 with a failed attempt to file a complaint with the RCMP about abuse at the home. By 2001, the first civil law suits had been filed and the numbers of complainants rapidly spiraled upward.
Last year, the Home itself agreed to a $5-million settlement in a separate arrangement, but the province stubbornly resisted making a deal.
McNeil, who paid tribute to the courage of the former residents — calling the road to settlement “a tough process on everybody involved” — coupled last week’s announcement of the financial settlement with equally welcome news that there will eventually be a public inquiry along the lines of the Native residential schools process in order to allow the former residents to bear public witness to what was done to them.
Darrell Dexter’s government had also been reluctant to call such an inquiry.
Tony Smith, a former resident who organized and advocated on the residents’ behalf, praised McNeil. “He listened, he asked questions. He actually got involved in trying to understand what was going on with us.”
The real question is why did Darrell Dexter and the NDP fumble so badly on this one?
Correction: The spelling of the name of the Home was corrected from Coloured to Colored. (June 9, 2014)