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Key deadline nears in class-action settlement for former orphanage residents

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HALIFAX - Fifteen years after going public with his story of child abuse, Tony Smith says he can't believe the day has come when a multi-million-dollar settlement involving a Halifax-area orphanage stands on the verge of being finalized.

The deadline for opting out of the $29-million class-action settlement is Monday, a day the self-described survivor of the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children says is a dream come true.

"It's like a burden had been lifted off of my back," Smith said in an interview. "I never thought it would happen."

Former residents of the home allege they suffered physical, psychological and sexual abuse mostly at the hands of caregivers while living in the orphanage, which opened in 1921 and operated for nearly 70 years.

If five or more former residents withdraw from the settlement by Monday, the terms of the agreement would allow the provincial government, at its discretion, to pull out of the deal.

As of Friday, the law firm representing the claimants and the province said they had received no submissions opting out of the deal. It could be days before it's known whether anyone opted out.

None of the allegations of abuse were ever tested in court and under the terms of the settlement the province does not admit liability.

Lawyer Ray Wagner, who oversaw the class-action case, said Smith played a central role in pushing for a resolution.

"I actually think Tony (Smith) was key," said Wagner. "He speaks from the heart and I think that makes a big difference."

Wagner described the case as transformative, both for a province coming to terms with a history of systemic racism and for the dozens of former orphans struggling to find closure.

"When you unleash people away from the shackles of the impact and the despair caused by historical abuse it's amazing how quickly they can grow into mature and articulate and understanding individuals and be able to move on to a better place," he said.

"The part that Tony has played in bringing that about cannot be understated."

Smith arrived at the orphanage as a five year old in 1965. He says he suffered physical and sexual abuse during his 3 1/2 years in the home, an experience echoed by dozens of former residents who have since come forward with their own stories.

"When I went public I didn't know the impact I was going to have," said Smith. "I had no idea the extent of the abuse and how long it was going on. But then people started coming forward and it kept on inspiring other people to come forward."

Smith went public with his story in 1998, saying his primary motivation at the time was the memory of witnessing what he described as the beating of a childhood friend and fellow resident.

"I always vowed that I was going to tell his story. I just didn't know how," he said. "I didn't know who would care, who would listen, who would do anything about it."

Tracey Dorrington-Skinner first collaborated with Smith several years ago when the pair co-chaired VOICES, a support and advocacy group for former residents.

"Working with Tony is amazing," said Dorrington-Skinner, who also spoke of abuse during her nearly 13 years in the group home. "To see his tenacity and to see his strength and his courage, (that) lent its hand to me finding my strength and my courage."

Work is now underway to outline the terms of reference for a process to give former residents an opportunity to publicly share their stories in an inquiry-type setting.

"We're still going to be looking for the truth but we're not looking to attack anybody," said Smith. "It's going to be a public inquiry but within a different flavour of restorative justice."

Provided the settlement passes its last hurdle, disbursements from the $29 million will start flowing to former residents as early as October. So far about 250 have identified themselves, though more may come forward in the coming months.

The compensation agreement formally approved last month is broken into two payout categories. The first is a common experience settlement, which applies to all residents who lived in the Home for Colored Children at any point between Jan. 1, 1921, and Dec. 31, 1989.

The second settlement category is an individual assessment program, which would address additional harms beyond those suffered by residents at large, including sexual abuse. Only residents of the Home for Colored Children after Nov. 1, 1951, would be eligible.

The $29-million deal will be added to a $5-million settlement reached last summer directly with the orphanage.

"I think this is going to be turning the page with the history of racism in Nova Scotia," said Smith.

"Seeing people grow and really starting to live their life and live their potential, the nice people that they've always been, it's amazing," he added. "We wore the badge of shame. Now we wear the badge of honour."

Follow @gwomand on Twitter.

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