Harriet Johnson was raped when she was a helpless 9-year-old and a ward of the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children in Dartmouth, outside Halifax.
When hearing that the home, faced with a class-action lawsuit, has agreed to pay a total of $5 million to victims of abuse, Johnson—a Montreal resident and mother of six—reacted with a mix of qualified satisfaction and considerable regret.
The money will be deposited in trust to the group’s lawyers and distributed to about 140 plaintiffs according to a formula to be approved by the Nova Scotia Supreme Court.
No apology was issued for what Johnson witnessed in her five years at the home, until she ran away, and for abuses suffered by others over the years. A proposed draft apology was rejected as too bland.
Johnson said she was relatively satisfied that the Nova Scotia Home had agreed to settle, even without an apology.
“By them giving the $5 million, they’re admitting to the wrongdoing, they’re admitting ‘yes, these horrible acts did take place’.”
The Nova Scotia government faces a separate lawsuit and has refused appeals from Johnson and other victims for a public inquiry. It has offered to set up an independent panel to examine and report on abuses at the home, but residents insist on a full public hearing. Though operated by a volunteer board, the provincial government provided most of the funding through per diem amounts for each child.
“It was a government-run home and the government needs to step up and do the right thing,” Johnson said.
“Speaking on behalf of the former victims, we are ready to testify about the abuses we suffered.
“We will not stop, we will continue until we get our voices heard and until the government admits to its wrongdoing.”
Observers argue that complaints over the years and persistent substandard living conditions were ignored because it was primarily for black and mixed-race children—“out of sight and out of mind” to a predominately white political class.
Johnson last fall described her life there as “hell.”
“I saw the devil and I didn’t like it. I saw other residents being abused sexually, physically and verbally. Conditions were filthy. Lice were common. We had to sleep together to stay warm in winter.
“It’s not a case of more money for the government, it’s a case of the government doing the right thing for what they ignored for decades,” she argues.
Political consequences have been immediate. Gordon Earle, the former MP for Halifax West and the first black person elected to the House of Commons, has quit the NDP in protest, saying, “I am very, very disappointed with the approach the NDP is taking.”
“Rather than trying to facilitate an agreement, the province has taken every (opportunity) to cover up the issue and not allow the light of day to shine on what took place,” Earle told a reporter.
Johnson was eager that her son Shawn Schenk, 17, be heard and passed the phone to him.
“I believe the government has an obligation to give my mother and all the other residents a public inquiry because of the hurt, pain and suffering they experienced when the government was supposed to be taking care of them,” he said.
Referring to Premier Darrel Dexter reportedly having asked what a public inquiry would cost, Shawn expressed dismay, and called out for “justice.”
“It has nothing to do with how much it’s going to cost, but what we can do to help relieve the suffering that’s inside the brain—all that mental trauma that’s probably going to take years of therapy to even help.
“I don’t like seeing my mom stressed, seeing her crying at night, break down in tears because she can’t handle it. It starts to affect me, and it affects my mother’s relationships,” he said.
“The public inquiry would be one step in a long road to provide a healing effect to the children, and the children of the children who stayed at the Nova Scotia Home,” Shawn said.