Wanda Lauren Taylor. The Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children (Halifax: Nimbus Publishing, 2015).
By Renée Lafferty-Salhany
A few years ago, I wrote about a public scandal inspired by abuses at the Halifax Industrial School in the early 1920s. The residents — delinquent boys welfare officials hoped to put on a better path through education and training — had been beaten, starved, over-worked, neglected, and subjected to horrific emotional and sexual abuse. The story made front page news in the city almost the moment someone caught wind of it. It spurred fervent, angry discussion amongst caregivers and social workers, not to mention a very engaged public. The hopeful conclusion to that story was that the Industrial School was different from other institutions, that the abuses were singular and contained to that one location. Wanda Lauren Taylor’s The Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children shows us this was patently untrue. Yet, disturbingly, the post-war physical, emotional and sexual abuses she details did not generate public outcry for decades. The abuse was allowed to continue: its ‘public’ existence limited to whispered rumours and stories meant to frighten disobedient children. Why the difference? Taylor’s suggests a number of reasons, the most compelling of which was that the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children (NSHCC) functioned in an environment of deeply entrenched racism. Indeed, racism demanded the creation of this segregated institution in the first place.
There are aspects of this book — not the most important ones, perhaps — which are troubling. Like many, for example, Taylor places Toronto’s J.J. Kelso at the forefront of child welfare development in Canada, a position he may have claimed, but not rightfully. Nova Scotia’s much earlier legislative and volunteer efforts were far more influential in creating the racialized atmosphere in which in the NSHCC was deemed necessary, and the environment which kept its doors open for so long. Leaping over the Home’s first few decades into the post-war era as she does, Taylor leaves her readers with an awkwardly incomplete picture of Nova Scotia’s child welfare infrastructure. Taylor also suggests that Fred MacKinnon, the province’s director of social welfare services, refused to augment the Home’s finances and support its expansion in the 1960s because of a pervasive atmosphere which “placed little value on the lives of the children” (41). This, she writes, is a “stark reminder of the ugliness of racial injustice and discriminatory practice” (41). Whether or not MacKinnon was an active participant in the ugliness of racism is not clear, but the suggestion masks another important context: by the 1960s, the NSHCC had become a professional embarrassment for provincial social workers. It was seen as an archaic hold-over, an out-dated, near Dickensian place where voluntarism was allowed to overwhelm professional practice. The provincial child welfare department rejected calls for greater funding and expansion (at least in part) because they wanted the NSHCC to close, to force social workers to employ foster care rather than have them rely on the (relatively easy) method of institutional care. Allowing the Home to continue operating siphoned attention and funding away from the Children’s Aid Society, which was their (and certainly MacKinnon’s) priority.
None of this, however, adequately explains or excuses the province’s apparent willingness to turn a blind eye to the problems, abuses, and suspicions about the Home. At the very least, officials knew the children were under-fed and poorly supervised and they had evidence suggesting physical and sexual abuse (rumours of which had inspired the Industrial School inquest). So, no matter how well I can frame an argument about the necessary attention that needs to be paid to the historical context, the fact remains — as Taylor’s work powerfully demonstrates — that a gross miscarriage of justice had occurred, and its victims were among the most vulnerable in Nova Scotia. She rightly underlines the depressing reality that, with a few notable exceptions (the NSHCC was one of these in its early years), children’s institutions were created to solve a perceived social problem, not to provide loving homes for children considered valuable members of the community. The heartbreaking impression left with many former NSHCC residents — that no one cared about them because they weren’t considered worth it (142) — is disturbingly close to what many people, including people who could have made a material difference in their lives, likely believed.
Taylor’s book is difficult to read because she writes with an uncompromising determination to cast light onto stories many of us would rather not listen to. She writes about those whose ability to recover requires this kind of confession, and she demands that someone listen. She flatly states that her goal is not to place blame (though I’m not certain she doesn’t suggest a few key sources of it, particularly in her interpretation of MacKinnon’s failures), and she bravely includes herself, a professional social worker and former resident of the Home, in the collective “we” who must take responsibility both for the abuses and the weighty task of effecting change. Personalized, intimate, and persuasively presented, the narratives of survival woven throughout Taylor’s history of the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children, result in a disturbingly important book.
Renée Lafferty-Salhany is associate professor of history at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario. She is currently researching a cultural and religious history of the War of 1812, and can be reached email@example.com.
 Renée N. Lafferty, The Guardianship of Best Interests: Institutional Care for the Children of the Poor in Halifax, 1850-1960 (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2013).