The RCMP are launching a confidential hotline to assist with their investigation into allegations of sexual abuse at the Nova Scotia Youth Centre between 1988 and 2017.
Police said Wednesday they have already taken statements from more than 70 people who say they were abused at the youth jail in Waterville, N.S., but believe there could be up to 200 in total.
They ask other survivors, and anyone with relevant information about the case, to come forward.
“If you, or someone you know, has experienced sexual assault while at Waterville, we want you to know we are here to support you,” said Const. Shannon Herbert, an investigator with Operation Headwind. “Anyone who chooses to come forward will be treated with dignity and respect.”
The hotline can be reached at 902-720-5313, or toll-free at 1-833-314-3475 from Monday to Friday between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. A confidential voicemail is available after hours. Investigators can also be reached by email at email@example.com.
At a news conference Wednesday, police would not offer any information about the alleged perpetrator, including whether a single staff member or several were named, or whether former residents themselves were facing allegations. No arrests have yet been made, and no charges have been laid.
RCMP said while their current investigation began in 2019, they had previously received reports of abuse, but their investigations at the time did not yield sufficient evidence to lay charges.
To date, all 70 people who have provided statements to police have been male, but police said they are not ruling out that girls could also have been abused.
Class-action lawsuit ongoing
A class-action lawsuit was filed in 2019 on behalf of three men who say they were subjected to sexual abuse during their stay at the Nova Scotia Youth Centre dating back to the youth correctional centre’s opening in 1988.
They say the abuse by a swim instructor at the facility included sexual assault, unwanted touching and sexual touching and improper viewing of them while they were undressed in changing rooms.
The men leading the class action were between 16 and 18 years old at the time of the incidents.
The province’s notice of defence, filed in the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia in 2019, says the men’s allegations were made against Donald Douglas Williams, who was employed at the provincially operated facility from 1988 to 2017.
The lawsuit automatically includes anyone who lived at the facility during those years and who alleges they were abused by the swim instructor.
None of the allegations have been tested in court.
The lawyer leading the class-action lawsuit, Mike Dull of Valent Legal, said his firm has been in contact with nearly 200 people with allegations of sexual misconduct by the swim instructor, but he expects the true number of survivors is likely at least double that figure.
“From past experiences where there’s allegations of institutional abuse, most people don’t come forward,” he said. “Most people would rather not go through that trauma or retriggering process and speak with policing or lawyers.”
Dull said members of the class action have a complicated history with policing agencies, as they were once incarcerated at a correctional facility, and a “shockingly large amount” have been in and out of prison since their stints at the Nova Scotia Youth Centre.
“It has been really difficult to convince these victims of crimes themselves to come forward to the policing agencies that they have innate distrust for and speak their truth to them.”
But Dull said the RCMP has fostered trust with the first few people who have come forward, and that has had a snowball effect, convincing others to share their experience with police.
“The announcement today — I know for sure because I’ve spoken with about a dozen men just today about this — they feel that their allegations are being treated seriously, with respect and that they’re being validated, and that’s been absolutely huge.… It feels really good for these people who thought they would be suffering in silence their whole lives.”
The class action alleges residents made multiple independent reports of sexual abuse and misconduct by the swim instructor, but no effective action was taken.
It also states that the province knew shortly after it hired the swim instructor that he was “sexually inappropriate with male youth” but did not take appropriate steps to address the behaviour.
The province was negligent because it was responsible for the care of residents and failed to safeguard their physical and emotional needs, the statement of claim says.
The lawsuit seeks compensation for emotional and psychological harm, payment for rehabilitation and counselling and punitive damages.
The province denies it was negligent and says residents did not previously report any abuse. The statement of defence also calls into question the three men’s participation in the aquatics program during their stays at the correctional centre.
In an email on Wednesday, Department of Justice spokesperson Deborah Bayer said the province was taking the allegations seriously and is co-operating with RCMP as it investigates.
“The safety and security of those in our custody remains a priority,” Bayer wrote. “The individual referenced in the class action lawsuit is no longer an employee of the province.”
Since the matter is before the court, the Justice Department is not able to comment further, Bayer added.