09/17/2013 09:22 EDT | Updated 11/17/2013 05:12 EST

'Anybody but Dexter,' says advocate for alleged victims of orphanage abuse

HALIFAX - Promises by Nova Scotia's opposition parties to launch a public inquiry into abuse allegations at a Halifax orphanage were lauded Tuesday by an advocate for former residents of the home.

Tony Smith said he isn't endorsing the Liberals or Progressive Conservatives in their bid to win the provincial election, but he supports their calls for an inquiry and would prefer to see either of them elected ahead of the NDP.

"If any opposition to this government wants to support us to get to the healing process, then I say anybody but (Premier Darrell) Dexter," said Smith.

Smith spoke out following a news conference by Liberal Leader Stephen McNeil, where he committed to calling an inquiry into accusations that children at the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children were abused for decades.

"I believe it is vitally important that the Province of Nova Scotia move ahead with an inquiry into this matter and it must be an immediate priority for any new government after this election," McNeil said.

He said an inquiry with the power to subpoena witnesses would be the best way of ensuring that those who need to answer questions about what is alleged to have happened at the orphanage do so.

McNeil has previously called for such an inquiry, as have the Tories, who also said Tuesday they would appoint an independent expert or experts to draft the terms of reference for such a probe.

Smith's group, the Victims of Child Exploitation Society, has been at odds with the NDP government since its decision earlier this year to strike a panel to review the abuse allegations. Premier Darrell Dexter has said the panel would serve the same purpose as an inquiry, a position Smith disputes.

"To have this independent panel go ahead and for us to be a part of it, we are only retraumatizing ourselves," Smith said.

Robert Wright has been appointed to draft the panel's terms of reference. He spent three years implementing a provincial child and youth strategy following a public inquiry into the case of a young offender whose stolen car struck and killed a Halifax woman in 2004.

Following the Liberal announcement, Finance Minister Maureen MacDonald said the NDP's position hasn't changed.

"We've asked Robert Wright to develop terms of reference for a process that will provide truth, reconciliation and healing," said MacDonald.

She said the government's decision to establish a panel was made after discussion with various groups, including Smith's.

"The feedback we got back ... was that the process had to be other than adversarial," she said.

She said Wright's recommendations on the terms of reference for a panel were expected by the end of August, but that was delayed due to a personal issue and the process is on hold until after the election.

The government is also opposing a proposed class-action lawsuit that has been launched by about 155 former residents of the home. The lawsuit, which is before the courts, alleges residents of the home suffered years of sexual, physical and psychological abuse by staff over a 50-year period up until the 1980s. The allegations have not been tested in court and lawyers for the government have argued that some of them are based on speculation or hearsay.

Earlier Tuesday, Dexter provided some details on his party's promise to appoint an adviser to review programs for Nova Scotia's seniors. He said about $100,000 would be set aside for the temporary position and the person would be tasked with reporting recommendations to improve the co-ordination of services for the province's steadily growing population of seniors. He said the adviser would be expected to begin working in the spring.

He said the review would be based on a model similar to what the government used when it appointed Dr. John Ross in 2009 to examine emergency room closures. That review that led to the creation of collaborate care centres in rural communities.

The vote is Oct. 8.