06/12/2015 12:58 EDT | Updated 06/12/2016 05:59 EDT

Terms of reference released for Nova Scotia orphanage inquiry

HALIFAX - Former residents who alleged decades of physical, psychological and sexual abuse at a former Halifax orphanage received a long-awaited apology from the home's board Friday, during the unveiling of the guidelines for a $5 million inquiry promised by the provincial government.

Sylvia Parris, chairwoman of the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children, made the apology during an event in Upper Hammonds Plains attended by former residents of the home as well as elected officials and representatives of the Halifax police and fire departments.

The home is now a short-term residential facility for children of all races.

"We the board leadership of the home apologize to the former residents and staff who suffered or experienced harm at the home," said Parris. "We are deeply sorry for the physical, emotional and other harms that you have experienced."

The apology followed one given last fall by Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil in a special ceremony at the provincial legislature.

McNeil was at Emmanuel Baptist Church Friday, where details were released on the inquiry he promised would come this year.

"We know that one inquiry will not solve every issue of racism and equality in Nova Scotia," Premier Stephen McNeil told the audience at Emmanuel Baptist Church. "But we're hopeful this will mark a new beginning and a new way forward, one that we can walk together."

The inquiry is expected to begin in October and to take up to two and a half years.

"Some painful truths will come to light over the life of this inquiry," said McNeil. "The results will challenge us to do things differently. Meaningful change will not be simple and it cannot be superficial."

Tony Smith, a former resident of the home and a member of the group that designed the terms of reference, said releasing the report signifies the province is formally moving ahead with the inquiry.

"It's unique. It's something that's unheard of, but we're doing it to build relationships and to move forward so that hopefully this will never happen again," Smith said in an interview.

Smith said the terms of reference are designed to ensure the process differs from a typical public inquiry and creates an environment where people can speak openly about their experiences.

"We call it the restorative inquiry because we're not doing the traditional public inquiry . . . we didn't want to have it as some kind of courtroom setting where you're just being asked questions and then you're really not being able to tell your complete story."

Smith said participants want the inquiry to have meaning and the intent isn't to place blame on anyone.

The inquiry will be overseen by a council that includes former residents and members of the home's board, as well as government representatives and members of the African Nova Scotian community.

The inquiry will take place throughout the province in a way similar to the truth and reconciliation process involving First Nations people. It will include a trained team to help people participate in a safe way and with a commitment to doing no further harm.

A task group composed of government and community members will also meet throughout the inquiry process to review what's been learned and to implement next steps. Members of the task group will be selected in the coming weeks.