Will Waterville sexual assaults investigation be a watershed… or another Shelburne

“Anyone who comes forward does so voluntarily, and we will be taking a trauma-informed approach when we’re speaking with them,” explained Cst. Shannon Herbert, an investigator with Operation Headwind, the RCMP’s investigation into allegations of sexual assault at the Nova Scotia Youth Centre in Waterville.

Operation Headwind, she told a press conference last week, was established after four men filed a lawsuit against the province in 2019 claiming they’d been sexually abused at the youth centre. So far, investigators have uncovered more than 70 cases in which they believe children were assaulted at the centre between 1988 and 2017. They believe there could be as many as 200 victims, and they called the news conference to encourage more survivors to come forward.

“If you, or someone you know, has experienced sexual assault while at Waterville, we want you to know we’re here to support you,” Herbert said. She promised they would be treated with “dignity and respect… A trauma-informed approach means that we’ve realized that trauma has widespread outcomes and widespread effects on people and communities and on their families. And our investigators are very conscientious and take an empathetic approach when speaking with individuals.”

Reading this, I couldn’t help but wonder about the survivors of abuse at Nova Scotia’s Shelburne School for Boys in the 1960s and 1970s, many of them now dead or old men. What would they think?

From 1948 to 1988, the Shelburne School for Boys — originally an abandoned World War II naval barracks — served as a juvenile detention centre and warehouse for boys under 18 who’d fallen afoul of the law, or life circumstances.

In 1988, the older boys were transferred to the newly opened centre in Waterville, and the Shelburne institution itself was finally shuttered in the mid-1990s.

By then, however, it had become notorious.

In 1991, a former Shelburne resident came forward to claim that as a child, he’d been molested by an employee named Patrick McDougall. That sparked an 18-month RCMP investigation, after which McDougall was convicted of having sexually assaulted several boys.

But the investigation and publicity about the case opened the floodgates. Dozens, and then hundreds of former residents came forward to insist that they too had been abused at the school, and not just by McDougall.

In 1995, an official inquiry documented 69 cases of abuse at Shelburne.  Concluded the report by New Brunswick Judge Stuart Stratton:

“… 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.”

A New York Times report later explained what happened next:

Fearing an avalanche of lawsuits, the Nova Scotia provincial government set up a $25 million compensation fund for victims. Setting aside due process and the concept that the accused were innocent until proven guilty, the government decided that the complaints would be accepted largely on face value.

Word spread like wildfire. The government advertised the fund in newspapers. In some prisons, lawyers posted what inmates nicknamed ”the meat chart,” an official compensation scale that ranged from $3,500 for physical abuse up to $85,000 for sexual assault. Within 18 months the number of accusers ballooned to about 1,400, the number of accusations into the thousands and the number of accused to 363.

Whether it had begun as a well-meaning attempt to compensate abuse victims without causing them more harm, or a more cynical attempt to ward off even more costly lawsuits, the result was a mess.

A 2002 report by retired Quebec judge Fred Kaufman described the process as a magnet for fraud, said he could not “begin to separate true and false claims of abuse” and concluded that, “in the end, everyone suffered.”

Including those whose abuse was now no longer even acknowledged to have happened.

In 2006, the province tried to put it all in the rearview mirror, agreeing to pay $5.5 million plus court costs to settle a lawsuit by 79 Shelburne employees who claimed they’d been unfairly accused of abuse.

But in the end, the boys who’d been abused in the Shelburne School — and there were plenty of them, whatever the official count — had been victimized again, not only by the flawed compensation process but also by our lack of understanding of sexual abuse and empathy for those who’d suffered as a result.

As I noted in a 2019 retrospective column about the Shelburne saga,

“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 [government internal] 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.”

Having interviewed a few of those who’d claimed abuse at the time, I believed them then. And I believe them now.

How will the current Waterville investigation ultimately play out?

So far as we know now, all the abuse allegations focus on one Waterville employee, a swimming coach. Could there have been other abusers? Could the abuse have happened without at least some others turning a blind eye to it? What about the institution’s administrators? What did they know and when did they know it?

It is essential that the police investigation be thorough and that claims be vetted to the extent possible, given that these are cases of historic abuse involving children. It is also critical that those who come forward are treated — as Cst. Herbert put it — “with dignity and respect.”

I hope that that will happen, especially given the tenor of the RCMP press conference last week and the (hopefully) different times in which we live.

But we also need to remind ourselves that the suffering of those who were abused at the Shelburne School for Boys has never been truly acknowledged.

We must be vigilant to ensure we don’t allow that to happen again.

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Operation Headwind has established a hotline is 902-720-5313, with a toll-free number of 1-833-314-3475. A person will answer the line between 8am and 4pm and people can leave a confidential voicemail outside of those hours. Additionally, investigators can be contacted by email at headwind@rcmp-grc.gc.ca.

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A version of this column originally appeared in the Halifax Examiner

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