“Forgiving does not erase the bitter past. A healed memory is not a deleted memory. Instead, forgiving what we cannot forget creates a new way to remember. We change the memory of our past into a hope for our future.”
— Lewis B. Smedes 1
“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”
—Frederick Douglass (1817–1895)
2. Walking the Path of Children’s Ghosts
Canadian historian Ken McGoogan has said that there’s no substitute for visiting the sites one is writing about. At first I bristled at this. Easy for him to say—he’s an international best-selling author who can afford to globetrot at will. Not everyone is so lucky (or so healthy). But I made it my determination to try, to the best of my financial ability and health. So far ‘walking the path of the ancestors’ has taken me to six communities throughout the Columbia Basin, archives in Vernon and Kelowna, BC and Ottawa, Peterborough Ontario, and this fall to Victoria, BC. That’s a lot of rubber on the road and in my condition it can be quite exhausting.
But McGoogan has a point. Getting one’s nose out of archival papers and photographs, however fascinating they are, adds a living dimension to the experience of doing research. Standing with Anne and Ivy in the Little Lake Cemetery, with the breeze wafting in from the canal and my fingers touching the stone, I felt a step closer to the spirits of these children taken so tragically young from life. At the unveiling of the second marker in 2000, Ivy alluded to this when she said: “Today we feel very much like a family would when they come to view a monument of a loved one.” 2 She has shed many tears for these long-dead children.
Is it just the activation of our sensory apparatus in the outdoors combining with imagination? Or is it that these voices call out to us from inside? For those with ‘home children’ in their past, the latter explanation isn’t so far-fetched. The emerging field of epigenetics has revealed that, contrary to standard genetic theory, significant events—particularly trauma—can actually alter the ‘software’ portion of DNA code. As Michael Stewart wrote in The Telegraph regarding sufferers of PTSD, “…new evidence suggests that the trauma is not just psychological, but biological and even heritable. By altering the chemical mechanisms regulating gene expression these modifications may become embedded in the male germ line, and can be passed down to the victim’s children.” 3
This is as good an explanation as any why so many ‘home children’ descendants are now emerging with a deep thirst to know about their forebears’ past. As writer William Faulkner said, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.” What we refuse to deal with in one generation will be passed on as an emotional legacy to the next one. This applies to both individuals and nations. It’s a principle psychologists are well familiar with and it is well documented. Even if we have no overt stories of abuse, many thousands of ‘home children’ descendants have this legacy in common: a wall of silence about their ancestors’ experiences as child immigrants. As I’ve written before, “Shame is a powerful silencer. But it doesn’t stop the pain.” And that pain—or at very least a gnawing hunger to know—gets passed down. Hence the vital importance of nations making formal apologies, as Australia and Britain have done. Canada under its current backward regime has refused an official apology even though we have already done so to the WWII Japanese internees, the First Nations residential schools, etc.
Unsurprisingly, Ivy Sucee isn’t behind the curve on this one. For some years now she has advocated for a Canadian government apology to the families of the ‘home children.’ “The children that were abused, they should have an apology,” she told the Peterborough Examiner in 2009. “I hope our Prime Minister will reconsider.” Sucee’s father Fred was sent first to an abusive family in Huntsville, Ontario but later transferred to a loving family in the Kingston area. “The Watkins family made him the gentleman he was,” she recalls. 4
Others—such as the girls who were sexually exploited by Alfred Owen, superintendent of the Barnardo’s Home in Toronto, weren’t so lucky. Although evidence of this began to emerge in 1900, it took until 1916 for C.H. Black, secretary at the Toronto headquarters, to make a formal accusation to Barnardo’s executive committee. Black also tendered his resignation because he ‘could not condone the offences and irregularities’ that he had discovered. But the executive pleaded the exigencies of war to avoid sending anyone to Canada to conduct a full enquiry. “It was not until 1919 that John Hobday was sent,” writes historian Roy Parker. “This, as (June) Rose explains, was only after Owen had been arrested by the Canadian police and accused of cohabiting with a Barnardo girl. Although confessing his guilt Owen was never convicted,” due partly to Hobday’s efforts to squelch the story. “Indeed until Rose published her book in 1987 this chapter in the account of Barnardo’s Canadian activities remained largely closed.” 5 It’s a good thing Ivy Sucee wasn’t around when Owen was arrested. “I’d have chased him down the street with a Wear-Ever frying pan, and don’t you think I wouldn’t!” 6
Another ardent advocate for a national apology is Lori Oschefsky, whose research is turning up more and more examples of abuse, neglect and profiting from these underprivileged children of Empire. Barnardo’s published a newsletter for its boys and girls called Ups and Downs from 1895 through the 1940s. As Lori has pointed out, from its earliest editions, editor Frank Vipond took advantage of his access to thousands of Barnardo’s boys and girls to urge them to buy life insurance policies. My research into the Church of England Waifs and Strays Society files in Ottawa this summer revealed a similar scheme promoted amongst their wards. A boy in the 1920s earned on average $6 a month. Out of this, for wards of the Waifs and Strays Society, was deducted the $20 cost of the trunk which contained their basic clothing and necessities, paid back at $5 a month. Asking such a child to then spend more of his miniscule earnings on insurance policies seems highly suspect to me.
Added to this was the fact that indenture contracts stipulated that a boy or girl had earnings over and above pocket money banked in a trust account until they became legal age. Yet many ‘home children’ knew nothing of these accounts, and even those who did sometimes found it hard to collect. In exceptional cases of need the distribution homes would relent and release the funds prior to the age of majority. But some never did see their money. Though it’s dangerous to take only one or even a few cases as typical, James J. Crookes, in Phyllis Harrison’s The Home Children, recalls having to go to Toronto to argue with Church of England officials to get his banked pay. The Depression had hit and they were claiming tough times. “I had quite a session there,” he recalled. “They said they couldn’t help me.” 7
The Canadian government was a consistent supporter of child emigration from the various British children’s homes, making it complicit in the scheme for good or ill. Notes from the minutes of the Waifs and Strays Society meetings in London reveal that the society sought and received government subsidy for children sent to Canada as Anglican wards. Supervisor of Juvenile Immigration George Bogue Smart confirmed in March 1923 a grant of $40 per child, and the Society sought to match that contribution from the church’s overseas settlement department. This was in addition to revenue for child emigration from church fundraising, estate bequests, and money paid back to the church by the children themselves. 8
A national apology is far from mere politics or an exercise in revisionist history. It functions on the same principle as the reformed alcoholic following one of the 12 steps—to make amends wherever possible. By acknowledging wrongdoing, apologizing and making efforts at restitution—not necessarily financial—an individual takes a giant step toward the healing of relations with his family. A nation is to some extent an extended family. The health of its individual members will add immeasurably to a nation’s health as a whole. To avoid such restitution is to perpetuate the pain and the societal schisms that result from it. In a newsletter published in 1997, Home Children Canada founder David Lorente alluded to psychiatrist Elizabeth Kübler-Ross and her work on the stages of grief: “One supposes that the effects on Home Children who were separated so completely from family, friends, country and all that was familiar would be even greater. Consider also that 66,000 of the Home Children sent to Canada were abused and all 100,000 suffered from a stigma that kept all of them—even the ones placed in ‘happy homes’—quiet about their past. Their SILENT SHAME is Canada’s.” 9
History is a series of stories that define us as individuals and cultures; when that is taken away, when stories are hidden (as with many ‘home children’) or expunged (as in the Native residential schools), the result is a people who are shattered in spirit. The symptoms tend to show up in alcohol and drug abuse, broken marriages, mental illness, and other functional impairments. So stories—fictional or non-fictional— aren’t just ‘fairy tales,’ they are a vital part of who we are. They place us in a continuum in time and physically in the landscape of our forebears. They tell us: your family’s story matters. You are someone who matters.
1. Lewis B. Smedes, quotation displayed in the Okanagan Heritage Museum, Kelowna, BC, for Art from Memory: Art Inspired by the Stories of World War Two Veterans, October 19, 2011.
2. Joseph Kim, Peterborough Examiner, Wednesday, May 17, 2000.
3. Michael Stewart, The Telegraph, November 23, 2010. Stewart cites an experiment with mice at the University of Zurich which “exposed male mice to stress and maternal neglect during the first two weeks after birth. Predictably, the mice became anxious and depressed—but so did two generations of their descendants, despite being reared with normal levels of maternal care and attention.”
4. Fiona Isaacson, Peterborough Examiner, Tuesday, November 17, 2009.
5. Roy Parker, Uprooted: The Shipment of Poor Children to Canada, 1867–1917, UBC Press, Vancouver & Toronto, 2008, pp. 72, 73. Parker is referencing June Rose’s book For the Sake of the Children.
6. Sean Arthur Joyce, interview with Ivy Sucee, August 22, 2012, Peterborough, Ontario.
7. Phyllis Harrison, The Home Children, Watson & Dwyer Publishing Ltd., Winnipeg, 1978, pp. 247-48.
8. Church of England Waifs and Strays Society minutes, 1910–1927, Library and Archives Canada microfilm reel A-1137, catalogue 1000140799, minutes dated March 19, 1923.
9. David Lorente, Home Children Canada newsletter, September 1997, Peterborough Museum and Archives collection.