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Stolen childhood

After years of abuse in the Halifax Protestant Orphanage, a survivor wants to know why people let it happen

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Shirley Carter can still smell the closets. See the dark. And feel the fear.

“I shouldn’t be so afraid,” she told herself  70 years ago, a child imagining a mouse crawling over her body.

She could hear the women whispering about it, just behind the door.

Were they trying to scare her? Or was it real?

“Oh my God, where is it?” she thought.

“Let me out, let me out,” she screamed before escaping through a ceiling latch of a cloak closet in the former Halifax Protestant Orphanage.

“I was beat a lot that night,” she recalls. “But I didn’t care…The fright of them, I think you get immune to it. But the thought of a mouse running on me…”

Orphanage staff made Carter stay in closets often, and for hours, she recalls. They tied her to her bed “almost every night of the week.”

They hit her with leather belts so much her bum “was sore most of the time.”

They made her unable to trust, to laugh, to hug for most of her life.

“I really don’t laugh, I smile sometimes but I can’t be really happy,” says the 76-year-old retired nurse, who lived in the building from ages two to 11. “We had to suppress our feelings, we weren’t allowed to be happy and have fun. I don’t know how to do that… I can’t feel it. I don’t feel it.”

Carter thought she’d die without ever telling her story.

But seeing other former residents tell their own to Halifax Magazine (“Confronting their demons,” July 2015), gave her the courage to speak about things she’s never told anyone.

Like the time she escaped that cloak closet.

The time she barely escaped a fire because she was tied her to her bed and thought “I will have to burn…so they will be exposed.”

How she never had toys or birthday celebrations. How she longed for books staff kept just out-of-reach.

“I think about it all the time,” she says. “I tried not to think about it but I’m scarred.”

Now she wants people to know what happened. She wants to know why authorities let it happen. “I want someone to acknowledge that happened to us and to say they’re sorry,” she says. “They go on with their life. It’s gone now and it’s closed. Who cares? But that was all my formative years…I was there so long.”

Shirley Carter, second from left in back row with bow in hair, at the orphanage sometime in the 1940s. She says toys were off limits unless the Ladies Committee or others came to visit.

The orphanage closed in 1970. But Carter thinks the city and the province should apologize on behalf former governments that didn’t keep a closer watch on the facility.

Halifax Mayor Mike Savage says he doesn’t know enough about the orphanage to comment but is willing to meet with former residents.
The province can’t say if it will consider an apology until it has more information, said spokeswoman Tracy Barron, after issuing a government statement.

“All children should live safe from harm and abuse. It’s tragic to hear from people whose experience was different,” she says. “We are searching our archival records to determine what involvement, if any, we had in the oversight, administration, and operation of this home during its operation.”

Municipal and provincial governments didn’t operate the orphanage, but they did fund it.

Anglican minister Fitzgerald Uniacke and other private citizens created it as a charity, then Halifax Protestant Orphans Home, in 1857.

A board of well-to-do citizens and a so-called Ladies Committee governed it, in several locations, from then on. Former residents say they did little to look out for their welfare.

Orphanage staff, known as matrons, usually knew when the “committee ladies”, as the children called them, were coming. They paraded them out in fancier clothes and with toys they didn’t otherwise have. “And we weren’t beat that day,” Carter says.

But orphanage records show parents, children’s aid societies, and the province placed children there (some of them so-called “wards” of the agencies or provincial child welfare system) for decades.

Children’s aid societies funded the facility as far back as the 1930s; the province, at least back to the 1940s.

Annual financial reports from the 1950s and 1960s show the province often provided the second highest annual funding, next to the board of governors. One document, from 1954, says the city provided a $5,000 grant although that’s not itemized in the annual reports that are now in the Nova Scotia Archives.

For Carter it’s not what governments did, but what they didn’t do, that matters most.

“We’re coming forward because we’ve been living a painful life,” says the mother of three, grandmother, and great-grandmother of five.

“You allowed this to happen to us…somebody up in the chain should have been checking.”

Monthly minutes throughout the 1950s and ’60s show the Ladies Committee checked as much, if not more, on the property than on the children. They list illnesses like chicken pox and whooping cough. They mention admissions and discharges. But they mostly document property repairs finished or needed, everything from steps to light switches. They often glowingly report on holiday festivities or orphanage staff.

But a few provide glimpses of what some of the children faced. A committee member, in a hand-written note dated June 13, 1956, describes interrupting a “disciplinary session.” She saw a staff member at the head of the stairs threatening a nine-year-old boy with a four-foot pole.

She says staff told her the boy would “not conform” to discipline and hid under a table, so someone prodded him out with the same stick.

“I would recommend that some action be taken to avoid a repetition as I felt it was very disturbing to all the children who witnessed it as well as the child involved,” she writes.

In 1964, the ladies’ committee held a special meeting to investigate allegations children were “beaten” and afraid of staff, charges the then-superintendent denied, describing discipline as “spankings.” Meeting minutes also document allegations a matron “injured” a child’s arm by twisting it, that bathroom doors were locked, that children were forced to stand as punishment, something a former resident previously described to Halifax Magazine.

Other than several annual reports, few records remain from the 1940s, which was the time Carter was there.

Like many former residents, she wasn’t an orphan. Her family was poor. Her father was an alcoholic. When her mother contracted tuberculosis and had to go to a sanitarium, her parents placed her and her older siblings Arthur and Eileen in the orphanage. Parents or agencies often placed children there because of poverty, parental sickness,
or neglect.

Carter’s aunt took her to the building (now the site of Veith House, a Halifax community centre) in 1942. Her infant sibling, Marguerite, stayed with her maternal grandmother and aunt. Her parents stayed together and had other children but Carter doesn’t blame them for what she sees as difficult choices.

She doesn’t remember her mother, who later told her she was sorry for never visiting. But she can see her father on the other side of the property’s fence. She remembers crying when he left and longing for him to return. But mostly, she remembers the abuse.

As she talks about it over the phone from her home in Ontario, she has a fan close to her face to control the panic that still rises from the past.

“I felt like I couldn’t breathe,” she says about her confinement in closets, which weren’t locked but she was too afraid to open. “I was waiting and thinking any minute they’re going to come and I thought maybe if I’ll be real quiet they’ll come and let me out … Sometimes I would holler and they’d come to the door and say ‘if you holler anymore you’re going to stay in there longer.’”

The vegetable closet was the worst, she says, “pitch dark” and stinking of musty potatoes and carrots.

“I felt like if I don’t get some fresh air I’m going to die … I have claustrophobia so bad. I can never get enough air…In a room, I don’t like doors closed. I don’t like anybody up real close in my face. I feel like I’ve got to push you away, like step back a bit…I feel like it’s coming and I can’t breathe.”

She also felt “trapped” in her bed, restrained in corset-like waist vests with attached strings matrons tied to mattress springs or bed legs. Former resident Linda Gray-LeBlanc previously described the same restraints.

Matrons forgot Carter there the night a fire broke out in the cloak room downstairs. She and her sister frantically tried to untie the knots.

“Both of us were crying …I said to my sister ‘you go, you go.’ It was a rough night…I smelled the smoke. I don’t like the smell of smoke. If I smell smoke it stays in my nose… and I can’t get rid of it.”

She can’t get rid of other memories either. Like the times matrons made her pull down her pants and strapped her bum for things like arguing with other children or chewing gum.

“They would tell you to go up and wait in your bed and come up with a leather strap….That was even worse, sitting and waiting for them to come…. It takes a lot to get me to cry because I practiced not [crying] because they would do it until they could get you to cry and I was determined that I wasn’t going to.”

Their emotional “cruelty” still hurts too. She has few memories of kindness. And even those are tinged with pain.

She remembers the nuns who temporarily sheltered residents in 1945 after the Magazine Hill ammunitions depot exploded, shattering orphanage windows and raining glass over the children.

“I thought ‘am I dead or what?’ These women were so nice. Telling us ‘dear, don’t worry, everything’s ok.’ We never were treated like that.”

She thinks of the kind couple, prospective adoptive parents, who took her and her sister shopping for a day.

“They bought me a little gray coat with burgundy velvet around the collar, a little hat, a pair of gloves and a purse to match the coat. “I was so proud and happy and feeling pretty.”  They told her she could keep the clothes. But matrons took them away.

Today she treasures her only childhood keepsake: a little red dress her mother saved and gave her years after she came home. She put it on one of the dolls she collects, as replacements for dolls she never had.  It’s proof, she says, “that I did exist.” That someone was thinking of her.

Just like her only baby picture, taken shortly before she went to the orphanage.

She has blond hair and rosy cheeks. She’s holding a stuffed toy. And she’s laughing.

“God knows what happened to me before I could remember,” she says. “It might have been very traumatic. The better part of me wants to think they were so happy to have a little baby in there. I don’t know…I don’t want to think they were abusing me at two years old. I don’t want to think that they were hitting me at two years old. So in order to live with that, I want to say I probably was a delight to them.”

CORRECTION: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story misstated the name of Halifax’s mayor. This version has been corrected. Halifax Magazine regrets the error.

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