10/31/2013 01:30 EDT | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

Inquiry into alleged abuse at orphanage to start in spring: Nova Scotia premier

HALIFAX - The terms of reference for a public inquiry into alleged abuse at a former Halifax orphanage should be set before the end of the year, Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil said Thursday.

McNeil, speaking after his first cabinet meeting Thursday, also said he expects the inquiry into the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children to start in the spring.

Former residents of the home allege they suffered sexual, physical and psychological abuse by staff at the facility over a 50-year period up until the 1980s.

They have been pushing for an inquiry for more than a year, but the former NDP government rejected the request.

The Liberal premier has said getting the inquiry started is one of his priorities.

"The (former) residents of the Home for Colored Children will find that there's a very different tone coming from this government," he said. "I want to move on this fairly quickly."

McNeil said an independent panel promised by the previous government — and dismissed as ineffective by former residents — was expected to release its terms of reference next week.

A spokesman in McNeil's office later said the government will have a look at the terms, but the plans for the panel will be scrapped.

"We won't be moving ahead with the panel, as it has no teeth legally," Kyley Harris said in an email. "(But) there may be value in some of Wright's recommendations related to an inquiry."

The panel's terms of reference were drafted by Robert Wright, who 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.

Meanwhile, McNeil said he has yet to be briefed on a court case involving 155 ex-residents who want the Nova Scotia Supreme Court to certify a potential class-action lawsuit against the provincial government.

"I'll let the courts deal with that," he said when asked if his government would withdraw from the proceedings.

On previous occasions, government lawyers have come forward to challenge affidavits submitted to the court.

The allegations in the proposed class-action have not been tested in court and lawyers for the government have argued that some of them are based on speculation or hearsay.

In April, the Home for Colored Children agreed to pay a $5-million settlement to 140 plaintiffs after they launched a class-action lawsuit two years ago.

In December 2012, Halifax police and the RCMP announced they would not be laying criminal charges in the case after concluding there was not enough evidence to support the abuse allegations.

The orphanage opened in 1921, but its role has evolved over the years, eventually expanding its services to promote the health and well-being of children and families within Nova Scotia's black community.