This week I begin an exciting new project, researching the history of the Canadian ‘home children’—or British child immigrants—in the Columbia Basin. My intent is not to create another history on the subject—that has been very capably done by other writers such as Kenneth Bagnell, Roy Parker, Joy Parr, and others. Rather, my goal is to blend memoir and regional history to create a highly personal, highly readable narrative that will appeal to the general public. I only learned about five years ago that my paternal grandfather Cyril William Joyce was one of these child immigrants. It seems he was so shamed by this fact he never spoke of it, not even with his wife and children. Why such shame should accrue to being a ‘home child’ is itself a tragic subtext to this story that is so fundamental to Canadian history. Yet not once did I ever read of it in my public schooling. More installments to the article will follow. I’m grateful for Columbia Basin Trust (CBT) funding through the Columbia Kootenay Cultural Alliance (CKCA) for this project.
“There walk, as yet, no ghosts of lovers in Canadian lanes. For it is possible, at a pinch, to do without gods. But one misses the dead.”
So said the young English poet Rupert Brooke upon visiting Canada in 1913. Of course it was a naïve assessment: it would have been more correct to say there were yet no British ghosts. Plenty of First Nations ghosts had their spirits imbued in the landscape, and in ever-greater numbers since the coming of Europeans, guns and smallpox. But it leads to the question: Are we a people who have lost our ghosts? Or are we in fact haunted by them, but can’t remember their names? On February 24, 2010, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown raised the spectre of thousands of child ghosts who inhabit our Canadian landscape. Ghosts whose names until now have been stricken from our history.
On that day Brown issued a long overdue public apology to the hundreds of thousands of children who were shipped to the colonies from the 1860s to as late as 1967, in the case of Australian child emigrants. As many as 130,000 children were scooped up from the mean streets of empire to be used as slave labour, mostly on Canadian farms and Australian work projects. It’s estimated that about 100,000 of these were sent to Canada, but because the relief agencies and governments were often secretive about the records, accurate numbers have yet to be given. Today there are two million or more descendants of what were derisively known in Canada as ‘home children’. Yet not once in all my years of public schooling did I learn this fact. What was even more shocking to me was learning in my middle age that I am one of those descendants.
My father used to wonder aloud why his father, my grandfather Cyril William Joyce, came to Canada as a lad of 16. “It just wasn’t like him to do something adventurous like that,” he says. “When I asked him why, he’d just say, ‘Oh, it seemed the thing to do at the time.’” Yet my grandfather seldom spoke of his family, and took what knowledge he had of them to his grave. I used to wonder if there had been some terrible family rift, or if something awful had happened that he refused to talk about.
About all we knew about Cyril was that he grew up in London, England and had arrived in Canada in 1926 on his own. We knew Cyril had been sponsored for emigration by the Church of England, but not why. We had no idea what ship he’d sailed on, or what port he sailed from. Cyril spoke only of the backbreaking work of life on a Northern Alberta farm, when he spoke about his past at all. He was a man of modest stature and build, more suited to office work than the rigours of farming. Although an uncle from England occasionally wrote him letters, Cyril made little effort to re-establish contact with the family. It was as if he was trying to erase his own past. I wondered what could make him want to do that. In 2007 I decided it was time to find out.
1. Tracking the Family Ghost
With the advent of mechanization during the Industrial Revolution, the agrarian/cottage-based industry of Britain was wiped out virtually overnight. Thousands of British workers were suddenly unemployed. Families flooded into the cities, where—even with the new factories—there was still not enough work for everyone. The parish relief system established under the Poor Laws dating back to Elizabethan times was overwhelmed. Poverty and disease in British cities became endemic—the shame of Empire. Children were literally dying in the gutter. At first, social reformers like Annie MacPherson and Dr. Thomas Barnardo simply wanted to help by creating ‘ragged schools’ to get poor children off the streets.
As is so often the case, what began as a charitable impulse was gradually corrupted by greed and political expediency. Soon even the orphanages were overcrowded and the idea arose to export children to the colonies. This served a dual purpose: to keep the colonies British (white) and provide a source of mostly free labour. Before long the churches and government were involved, providing logistical and financial support. In addition to raising money to equip children with a kit of clothing and basic supplies for emigration, ship fares had to be paid and in some cases emigrationists in the late 19th century earned as much as £2 a head for transporting children. A single ship might carry as few as two dozen and as many as a hundred or more children bound for Australia, Canada or New Zealand.
This is where it started to go off the rails. The growing demand for child workers overseas put pressure on officials and church wardens to bend the rules. The Poor Law Boards often used the clergy as their agents in the community. A clergyman thus had a de facto power of law over the poor in his parish, with the authority to take children “into care” as wards of the State if it was determined that the family was too poor to support them. This practice came to be known as “philanthropic abductions.” 1 Poor parents unwilling to give up their children had little choice. Once taken from their families, children were essentially branded ‘orphans’, regardless of whether their parents survived or not. Although parents could occasionally visit their children in the orphanages, some were shocked to discover that what they had considered a temporary placement had become permanent. Or worse, that they had been shipped overseas. Most would never see their children again.
The lives of Canadian child immigrants were rife with suffering. For the boys, back-breaking labour from dawn ’til dusk on a farm in Ontario, the Maritimes or Quebec, and later in the West. The girls were earmarked for domestic service, mostly in farm households, that left them vulnerable to sexual abuse due to their isolation. Some families would be decent and try to give the youngest ones a truly new start—generally those few who adopted immigrant children. But many would use them not much differently than pack animals. “The day started at four in the morning with the help staggering out to the barn to begin the chores—milking one hundred cows by hand,” recalls William Donaldson of Chipman, New Brunswick. “The barn work was usually done by six o’clock and breakfast was at seven. After breakfast we went down to the slaughterhouse to kill two or three head of beef or pork… The help would be fortunate to be in bed by ten at night.” 2
In the early years children as young as six or seven were emigrated, though these were less valued due to their limited ability to work. It would take until 1924 for the minimum age for child immigrants to be raised to 14. Although efforts were made by both British and Canadian governments to legislate a minimum of schooling for these children, this was seldom enforced. Authorities tended to sympathize with farmers’ needs. Many ‘home children’ thus ended up with little or no education. “You did not get out to play with other boys and girls. It was all work,” writes Joseph Betts of Belleville, Ontario. “Not only that but when I came over here I left three sisters behind in England. I have never heard from them and cannot seem to get track of them.” 3
Child immigrants had little or no say in their fates. It was a stark choice: Live in abject poverty on the streets of Britain or be shipped to a strange country, never to see one’s home or family again. In Australia the children were sent to live in institutions run by the Catholic order known as the Christian Brothers. 4 These were little more than child labour camps where children were used to build roads, schools, and other infrastructure. They were routinely beaten and often sexually abused. English social worker Margaret Humphreys has made it a mission through her Child Migrants Trust in Nottingham to reunite as many Australian home children as possible with their families in Britain. Thanks to her work, for many the healing process has begun, the laying to rest of old, anguished family ghosts.
According to Perry Snow, a psychologist and the son of a child emigrant from England, the psychological effects on these children ran deep. His father Frederick Snow spent much of his life feeling deeply insecure about his identity. “They underestimated the strength of needing to know who you are,” writes Snow. “No one should live their life without knowing who they are and to whom they belong.” 5 To make matters worse, ‘home children’ were often ridiculed by Canadian kids who viewed them as outsiders, and by adults who saw them as undesirable foreigners taking away jobs.
Thankfully Fred Snow married and—simply by being a loving husband and father— stopped the cycle of bad karma before it infected another generation. Yet, like my grandfather, he was unable to openly speak of his experiences, even with his wife and children. Partly this may have been because of the harsh stigma suffered by home children in Canada. Shame is a powerful silencer. Unfortunately, silence doesn’t end the pain. As a general rule, says family systems psychologist John Bradshaw, what is left undone by the parents must be worked out by the children. “Genetic predispositions often coincide with family dynamics, and a child may take on unresolved feelings of sadness that have come from previous generations,” Bradshaw explains. 6 Perry Snow is a living example—an echo chamber for his father’s unexpressed angst—the angst of being without family identity, or a sense of connection in the world. “Your identity allows you to value yourself as a unique person of some worth,” he writes. “How would you feel about yourself if you believed you were an orphaned, abandoned, unwanted, and illegitimate nobody?” 7
Part Two to follow (footnotes available upon request for those interested in reading some fascinating history.)