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Settlement in Halifax orphanage abuse case is overdue validation, plaintiffs say

Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil waves to a passerby as he leaves Province House in Halifax following a press conference on Tuesday, June 3, 2014, to discuss a tentative $29-million settlement with former residents of the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darren Pittman

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Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil waves to a passerby as he leaves Province House in Halifax following a press conference on Tuesday, June 3, 2014, to discuss a tentative $29-million settlement with former residents of the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darren Pittman

HALIFAX - A tentative settlement between the provincial government and former residents of the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children who allege they were abused there as orphans was hailed Tuesday by two plaintiffs as overdue validation of their decades-long fight for justice.

The $29-million agreement announced by Premier Stephen McNeil could bring an end to a class-action lawsuit involving dozens of people who alleged they were sexually, physically and psychologically abused while they were children at the Halifax orphanage.

"It's a celebration of acknowledgment," said Tony Smith, who lived at the home for 3 1/2 years in the 1960s.

"For all these years we walked around with this badge of shame and now we can walk around with a badge of honour."

Tracey Dorrington-Skinner, who lived at the home from 1972 to 1984, said the settlement provides a measures of redress.

"A lot of us feel that today we have received some form of justice, but most of that justice will come when we have our public inquiry," she said.

McNeil's announcement follows a promise he made in November to try to reach an out-of-court settlement with the plaintiffs.

"It was our hope and my hope that we would come ... to a respectful conclusion and I believe we've reached that," McNeil told a news conference.

"This has been a tough process on everybody involved and for some it's been a life journey."

The previous NDP government fought the lawsuit in the courts, arguing that some of the allegations are based on speculation or hearsay. It was subsequently certified as a class-action, though the abuse allegations have not been tested in court.

The agreement filed with the Nova Scotia Supreme Court says eligible class members are those who lived at the home from Jan. 1, 1921, until Dec. 31, 1989, and 155 class members have so far contacted Ray Wagner's law firm, which is leading the class-action lawsuit.

Wagner said he expects the number of people who could benefit from the settlement could rise to between 200 and 300 once it is certified by the court.

"The settlement number we feel is a fair and reasonable one in the context of looking at other settlements across the country," said Wagner.

The settlement is scheduled to go before the court for preliminary approval on Friday, with final court approval tentatively set for July 7. It is expected to be finalized by the end of September, McNeil said.

The province does not admit liability, according to terms of the settlement. Plaintiffs can opt out if they want to proceed with lawsuits of their own.

McNeil said the province's lump sum payment would be disbursed by lawyers representing the class members. That would be in addition to a $5 million settlement that the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children agreed to pay in April 2013 to resolve the class-action lawsuit that it was facing over the allegations of abuse.

The settlement announced Tuesday sets out a range of payments based on the amount of time people lived at the orphanage and the severity of harm they may have endured. Each claim will undergo an independent assessment process.

McNeil said after the settlement is reached, the government will begin developing terms of reference for a process to give former residents an opportunity to publicly share their stories in an inquiry-type setting.

The home, which opened in 1921, is now a short-term residential facility for children of all races.

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