HALIFAX—It’s a shadow that has hung over a youth detention centre, a modest ring of green-roofed institutional buildings in Nova Scotia’s picturesque Annapolis Valley, for decades. The extent of that shadow has not become fully clear until recently.
The allegations have been of abuse and indifference spanning nearly 30 years, leaving victims with emotional scars and lifelong trauma.
The accounts were summed up in a 2019 class-action lawsuit that accused a swimming instructor at the Nova Scotia Youth Centre in Waterville of preying on the boys in his care, sexually assaulting more than 70 of them. The lawyer dealing with the class action has said the number of victims might well exceed 200. The province’s attorney general has denied most of the allegations.
On Wednesday, the latest chapter in the story emerged, as the RCMP announced an investigation into what it says are at least 70 possible cases of sexual assault at the same facility, over the same period, though it did not name the alleged perpetrator or say whether there was more than one involved.
“This is the biggest investigation I’ve been involved with in 19 years of service,” said RCMP Sgt. Brian Fitzpatrick.
Police said, based on the investigation to date, they expected as many as 200 victims to come forward to make statements. They’ve set up a confidential hotline for those sexually assaulted at the centre, or those who have information about those assaults.
But the “sheer size, the amount of information we need to process and eventually disclose, and the amount of survivor witnesses who we have to deploy investigators to interview across Canada” is going to make that investigation challenging, said Fitzpatrick.
He said the police probe into the sexual assaults at the Nova Scotia Youth Centre in Waterville began with the assembly of a team of 11 investigators in early 2019.
That was around the same time that lawyer Mike Dull filed a class-action suit against the Attorney General of Nova Scotia — as the operator of the centre — on behalf of men who were allegedly abused as youths there.
“They revolve around the same set of allegations,” he said Wednesday of the RCMP investigation and the 2019 class action.
“I represent a class of people who allege that, during their time as youths at the Nova Scotia Youth Centre, Waterville, they were subjected to sexual misconduct by the longtime swim instructor of the facility. The experiences range in severity from what would be called minor sexual abuse to quite severe sexual abuse.
“It covers the entire period that this alleged abuser was employed in the facility, which is about three decades. He was one of the first people employed there and was permitted to retire in 2017.”
The statement of claim submitted in 2019 alleges:
“The Employee was a swim instructor at Waterville, who committed a range of abuses against male youth attending and/or resident at the facility. That abuse included, but was not limited to, improper viewing of youths while they were undressed in changing areas, unwanted touching and sexual touching, and sexual assault.”
Furthermore, the class action alleges that the centre knew these assaults were taking place and did little to stop them.
“Instances of sexual abuse committed by the Employee were reported to persons in authority at Waterville at various times,” read the statement of claim. “Regardless, nothing was done by way of investigation or rectification. Alternatively, if steps were taken to investigate and/or rectify the reported abuses, these steps were inadequate and ineffective at remedying the ongoing sexual abuse of youths resident at Waterville by staff of the Waterville facility.”
The class action’s statement of claim has not been tested in court.
The suit claims that the province had a responsibility to ensure that the youths in its care were protected from sexual misconduct by the adult men who were put in positions of responsibility over them, said Dull. When it had reason to believe that one of its staff was sexually inappropriate with those male youths, it had a responsibility to remove that staff member from the environment promptly.
Failing to do that, for whatever reason, Dull said, amounts to negligence.
He said his first contact with one of the centre’s victims came in 2018, when a man reached out to talk to him about an incident with the swim instructor that occurred in 2012. The victim told Dull that not only had the incident occurred, but that the episodes of sexual misconduct were an open secret among the boys at institution and among the staff there.
Not long after Dull filed a claim on the first alleged victim’s behalf, he began to hear from others.
“It really started snowballing such that I was receiving a dozen phone calls a week for a period of a few months there,” he said.
At this point, Dull, estimates he has talked to more than 200 men who spent time at the centre, who have stories of sexual assault.
He said he sees the RCMP announcement of its investigation and the hotline as an encouraging development for a group of people who, by and large, have a “complicated history with policing agencies,” to have their voices heard.
“Their time there was intended to help reform them such that they, as adults, would be better off after having been there,” Dull said.
“And if the allegations are, in fact, correct, instead of reforming them, they were abused there by someone that the facility knew or ought to have known had a history of this.”
Dull said many of the life outcomes of the young victims of alleged sexual assault at the centre have been similar: dropping out of school, early substance abuse issues, difficulty with relationships, underemployment, anti-social behaviour and criminality are consistent themes.
“They’ve been sort of punished to a lifetime of conflict and periods of isolation while the person that they say is at the root of this has been living in the community and enjoying its freedom. And from where my clients are, that’s fundamentally unfair.”
The Attorney General of Nova Scotia, in its statement of defence to the class-action suit, denies most of the allegations. But it did identify the swim instructor at the centre of the suit’s accusations.
“The Crown denies … the Plaintiffs’ and Class Members claims that they were sexually abused at the NSYC by Donald Douglas Williams, born June 22, 1950, who was employed at the NSYC between June 20, 1988 and December 31, 2017 (“the Class Period”), and is called “the employee” and/or “the swim instructor” in the Statement of Claim,” reads the Attorney General’s statement of defence.
During its news conference Wednesday, the RCMP did not identify any suspect in its investigation.
The class-action suit seeks damages for “negligence and breaches of fiduciary duty” from the province. The exact dollar figure of those damages has yet to be determined.
With files from The Canadian Press
JOIN THE CONVERSATION
does not endorse these opinions.