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

HALIFAX — 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 Halifax 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.

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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 Halifax 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 story titled "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 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," says 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, says Kristina Llewellyn, a University of Waterloo professor who specializes in oral history and who is leading the development of the project, titled Digital Oral Histories for Reconciliation.

The two-week curriculum includes lessons designed to encourage students to discuss the root causes of the abuse they witness. It also includes "restorative circles" where students discuss what they have heard and consider ways to prevent similar forms of abuse in the future.

After the viewing, Ofume told Smith he finds it confusing that students would hurt one another. Smith explained that former residents now tell one another, "It's not your fault, it was a culture. This is what you were told to do."

Nyisha Clayton, 15, said she was struck by the virtual-reality story titled "Swamp Water," which shows how children had to bathe in dirty bathwater. She said she'd heard of abuse in the home, but the "unsettling" immersion gave her a stronger sense of the residents' experience.

"I want to tell people people about it .... I want to help people understand what happened in the home," she said in an interview.

While the narratives can be stark, the visual components are not explicit recreations of abuse. Rather, the viewers can move through scenes based on architectural renderings, photographs and survivor accounts, such as a darkened hallway in the girl's dormitory with closed doors.

Participants hear through a narrator of the fears a girl would experience when staff would come into the area at night and disturbing noises could be heard through the thin walls.

Amelie Lemieux, an education professor at Mount Saint Vincent University's, said research indicates virtual reality teaching leads to "engagement in a topic matter ... whether it's exploring new places or a difficult historic matter."

However, she cautions that if education departments and school districts include virtual reality in their curriculums, they should ensure professional development for teachers and provide access to consultants who understand the technology. Often teachers have little experience with virtual reality, and they may struggle without training, she said.

In addition, she said she'd like to see virtual reality programs that permit students to shift away from discussing the productions of others and instead learn how to create their own.

Llewellyn said she intends to incorporate student and teacher feedback into the final product. The current cost for a virtual reality education centre, which could be shared among schools, is about $2,500 for a gaming laptop and Oculus Rift, she said. The ultimate goal is to incorporate the project for use in all African Canadian Studies and Canadian History classes in Nova Scotia.

With the final report from a provincial inquiry into abuse at the home expected to be released later this month, Smith said seeing young people learn about residents' experience helps the healing.

"We didn't want our stories forgotten .... Instead of wearing the badge of shame, we can now wear the badge of pride and respect," he said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 13, 2019.

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