03/06/2015 02:39 EST | Updated 05/06/2015 05:59 EDT

Terms of reference for orphanage inquiry nearly complete: Nova Scotia government

HALIFAX - With the terms of reference for a public inquiry into alleged abuse at the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children nearly complete, a former resident says they are another step closer to starting the healing process.

People who used to live in the Halifax orphanage allege that they were subjected to physical, psychological and sexual abuse over several decades up until the 1980s.

Chad Lucas, a spokesman for the province, said Friday that a group tasked with designing the terms of reference have been meeting with interested parties and the terms should be finalized in a few weeks.

Tony Smith, a former resident of the home who is part of the group designing the terms of reference, said the inquiry will give former residents the chance to tell their stories.

"And it would be the first time that they actually tell their stories," said Smith, adding that former residents will be able to do so publicly or anonymously. "I think once that's over, then they can really, truly start the healing process."

Premier Stephen McNeil apologized in October for the abuse, acknowledging that the pleas of former residents for help went unanswered in what he described as a chapter in the province's history of systemic racism. The formal apology came after years of a struggle for recognition by the former residents.

Lucas wouldn't reveal any details about the terms of reference and he couldn't say when the inquiry process would begin, but he said it would start sometime this year.

An array of people, including representatives from multiple government departments, the board of the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children and former residents, were part of the group designing the terms of reference, said Lucas.

"People seem quite responsive and receptive to the direction it's been going," said Lucas.

In March 2012, the RCMP and Halifax police began urging people to come forward with their allegations of abuse.

Investigators interviewed 40 complainants in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Quebec, Ontario and Alberta, but by December of that year police said the information collected didn't support the laying of criminal charges because it could not be corroborated.

Class-action lawsuits were launched by the former residents against the home and the provincial government, which eventually ended in settlements totalling $34 million.

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