The Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children (NSHCC) was established in 1921 as a welfare institution for African Nova Scotian children in need of care. Operating for more than 70 years, the home was a site of institutional abuse. When former residents began to come forward in 1998 to speak about their experiences of harm, they were met with denials and silence by authorities. It would be more than a decade before their voices were properly heard.

Today, a team of Waterloo researchers, along with researchers from several other universities and community stakeholders, are working with former residents to shed light on the history of the home in order to build a more just future.

People in forest

From VR story, The Rock, with VOICES members: Tony Smith, Gerry Morrison, Tracy Dorrington-Skinner (credit: DOHR project)

Tony Smith, who arrived at the home as a five-year-old in the 1960s, co-founded Victims of Institutional Child Exploitation Society (VOICES) with Tracy Dorrington-Skinner (sent to the home at age six) and Gerry Morrison (sent there as a two-year old). Their “journey to light,” as they refer to their activism, along with efforts by other former residents, led to an eventual settlement, a public apology from the premier, and in 2015 the launch of Nova Scotia’s five-year Restorative Inquiry into the NSHCC.

One of the missions of the inquiry was to support the public, especially high school students, in understanding the experiences of former residents as a means of reconciliation between African Nova Scotians and others. This is where Waterloo scholars are playing a role.

Kristina Llewellyn, professor of Social Development Studies and an expert in oral history and education, leads the Digital Oral Histories for Reconciliation (DOHR) project. Now in its third year, the multidisciplinary, community-driven partnership is contributing to Nova Scotia’s Grade 11 Canadian history curriculum using an approach called restorative learning. A goal of the DOHR project is to develop students’ historical understanding of the home, as an example of systemic racism, and a key feature of the learning process is virtual reality (VR) storytelling.

Chair in dark room

From Tony Smith's VR story, Pecking Order (credit: DOHR project)

However, it is not VR as a first-person gaming experience nor as an empathy-making tool. “We’re doing VR differently,” Llewellyn says. “We don’t want to put the students experiencing the VR stories in the shoes of the children harmed in the home. Instead, we’re focused on relationships; designing the VR experience to give a sense of connection to the stories, to the people telling the stories, and to the history of harm in a way that would create a sense of responsibility toward making things better today.”

Rather than witnessing explicit scenes of abuse, the VR users move through renderings of the home’s interior spaces — a dormitory, a basement, the hallway outside a bathroom — hearing ambient sound and, most important, listening to Smith, Dorrington-Skinner and Morrison narrate their childhood experiences.

"I was light skinned. They called me a white wannabe and instructed the other kids to beat me, to beat the black into me. On the other hand, if you had a dark complexion, you were considered to be black and ugly and were called all kinds of negative names."

from Tony Smith’s story, The Pecking Order

Jennifer Roberts-Smith, professor in the Department of Communication Arts, leads the project’s creative team, including colleagues Paul Cegys and Bill Chesney, in building 12 VR stories. At every step, the full DOHR team worked in collaboration with the former residents and other community members, an approach that, like the curriculum itself, is guided by the principles of building relationship among stakeholders and between the past and the present.

“What VR users really need in this virtual world is an opportunity to think about somebody else’s perspective,” Roberts-Smith says. “Accurate rendering is only important to the extent that it helps witnesses understand the experience of the storyteller and think about why, as children in the home, such experiences could have happened. So, when students take off their headsets, they look at the world around them now and consider the consequences of this history they’ve just learned about.”

Llewellyn adds that while the VR storytelling is only part of a larger curriculum, the technology is proving an effective way of engaging students and allowing them to witness difficult stories without causing further harm or trauma to them as viewers. "The VR experience asks students to think about what the home represents and why it became a place of harm.”

Girl using VR equipment

Student experiences VR stories during curriculum pilot (credit: Halifax Regional Centre for Education)

The DOHR team recently ran pilots at two Nova Scotia high schools. After viewing the VR stories, student reflections captured in a video documenting the pilots included, “I didn’t know how it affected them, and so many of them,” and “I wish I could go back and take them out.” Responding to the VR storytelling itself, a student said, “It gives you a connection to the people and their stories — rather than just hearing or reading about it.”

Tony Smith was present following the pilot and comments in the video. He says, “It was amazing to see students watch our stories. The most important thing is to educate, to never forget the stories and to make sure that no other kids go through what we went through.”

“Some student reaction was quite transformative,” Llewellyn says. She describes one boy who seemed generally disengaged with schooling, yet at the end of the curriculum announced that he would make and distribute buttons that say, “Join the Journey to Light.”

The DOHR team are taking student and teacher feedback to refine the curriculum for province-wide use in schools, contributing to the ongoing work of reconciliation charted by the Restorative Inquiry.

Banner: Jacqueline Foster, CTV News