Virtual reality teaching about N.S. group home abuse transforms shame into respect

CBC with Kristina Llewellyn 13 November 2019


Fifteen-year-old Christian Ofume stands with Tony Smith and discusses the virtual-reality education he’s just received, detailing how, as children, Smith and other residents of a Dartmouth, N.S., group home were forced to beat one another to entertain staff.

“It makes me shake my head ….They’re just kids, and they’re having to struggle through so much,” Ofume told the 59-year-old former resident of the home last week.

The Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children, which opened in 1921, was the site of alleged mistreatment and abuse from the 1940s until the early 1980s.

It became the focus of an RCMP investigation that was eventually dropped in 2012 after police said they had difficulties corroborating the allegations of sexual and physical abuse. However, class-action lawsuits launched by the former residents against the home and the provincial government ended in settlements totalling $34 million, followed by a public apology in 2014 from the premier.

Ofume, a Grade 11 student at Auburn Drive High School in Dartmouth is part of a pilot project using digital recreations of 12 stories told by former residents of the home. To see the residents’ accounts of events in the home, Ofume donned an Oculus Rift headset — virtual-reality goggles — that allowed him to immerse himself in a recreated scene.

In The Switch, Smith narrates an account of children being told to fight until one of the combatants cried. If children refused to fight, they were sent into nearby woods to cut a stick to receive a beating from the staff. An image of the branch is seen in an outdoors scene as the former resident’s narration unfolds.

Smith, the co-chair of the Victims of Institutional Child Exploitation Society, narrated four of the stories in the project being tested at two Nova Scotia schools. Two other former residents, Tracey Dorrington-Skinner and Gerry Morrison, tell the other eight stories.

“It’s the first curriculum [in Canada] of its kind to use personal storytelling and immersive technology to address a historical harm,” said a release from the province’s Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children Restorative Inquiry, the commission created after the 2014 apology.

Post-viewing discussion is also a key feature, said Kristina Llewellyn, a University of Waterloo professor who specializes in oral history and is leading the development of the project, titled Digital Oral Histories for Reconciliation.