Restorative inquiry on Home for Colored Children calls for more collaborative services

From a place of darkness, Tony Smith has found light.

Smith and the rest of the commissioners for the restorative inquiry into the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children delivered their final report, Journey to Light: A Different Way Forward, on Thursday.

Rather than delivering a traditional checklist of recommendations and timelines, the report plots a course to change the system charged with helping children and families in need so what happened to Smith and many other young people won't happen again.

In 1998, Smith came forward to share his story and that of a friend about the abuse they suffered as residents at the Dartmouth, N.S., orphanage, which opened in 1921 with the intention of helping black children who were otherwise being neglected by the social services system.

Smith knew there was a possibility people in the black community would be upset and he would be ridiculed, but with the support of his family he decided it was more important to lay bare the truth and break the silence.

"I had no idea of the magnitude and the decades of this harm," he told reporters in Halifax. "I'm very honoured that the former residents wanted me to continue."

Robert Short/CBC

Premier Stephen McNeil, who apologized to former residents and the broader community for the abuse and legacy of systemic racism in the province, ordered the inquiry after his party won the 2013 provincial election.

But the inquiry would take a different form than usual, following a restorative justice model — a first of its kind in the country.

Jennifer Llewellyn, a commissioner and noted restorative justice expert and professor at Dalhousie University's law school, said the idea was to avoid an adversarial approach.

Rather than looking to assign blame, the aim was to build relationships with as many people as possible who were connected to the home in an attempt to understand why the abuse and harm happened, and consider how to move beyond a history of systemic and institutionalized racism.

Judge Pam Williams, another commissioner, said this approach was key to making progress and helping people to understand the legacy of the home and why the system needs to change.

"You can never underestimate the importance of building significant relationships," she said. "Relationships build trust. Trust builds communication. Communication builds learning and understanding."

A way to heal

Commission member George Gray said when the inquiry was first announced, many people with connections with the home were nervous, but they soon came to realize the approach and intent was different than what some people expected.

"They also came to understand that this represented a chance to deal with these issues in a different way, one that would not bring harm but would help us break the silence in the community and talk about these very difficult and painful parts of the past."

Robert Short/CBC

People have come together through the process and they're learning to understand and heal, said Gray.

While there isn't a traditional to-do list stemming from the report, its chief goal is to see a system that too often requires people in need to navigate various agencies and government departments transform into one that breaks down barriers and works collaboratively with people's needs as the focus.

It also calls for a youth commission to be created that would follow a similar model to the restorative approach in helping children and families in need. Making the system revolve around people, rather than the other way around, is imperative, said Llewellyn.

'Never thought it would be this big'

Tracey Taweel, one of the deputy ministers who worked with the group, said a more holistic approach has already started to be used with how government delivers some services and programs, and she pledged those efforts will continue.

"For us it will not be a report that sits on a shelf. We intend to engage with it as we have with this process generally."

Like other commissioners, Smith said the final report marks more of a beginning than it does an end. Still, he was almost at a loss for words when he considered a process that has led to an apology from the RCMP and provincial government and the development of an education program to share the history of the home with young people.

"I never thought it would be this big," he said. "I never thought in my wildest dreams that this would be happening."