Part One: Perry Snow: INTRODUCTION
Perry Snow is the son of a British Home Child, Frederick George Snow. His father was sent to Canada in 1925 by the Church of England Waifs and Strays Society at the age of 15. Fred had been in foster care since infancy so by this time he had no recollection of his birth family. The struggle to reconnect with his English relatives—or even to know his own identity—would occupy much of his adult life.
As Perry Snow writes in his book Neither Waif Nor Stray: In Search of a Stolen Identity: “My father was a reserved and solitary man, who quietly stood at the fringe of conversations when others spoke of their past or families. His family was a mystery to him. He did know who he was. He never had a birth certificate, and for the first 33 years of his life, had nothing to verify who he was. From the age of 33–48, he carried a tattered To Whom It May Concern letter for identification. It stated his name and identified him as “of British nationality.” For the first half of his life, he had serious doubts if his surname was really ‘Snow.’” (Introduction, p. 7)
With a setup like that it’s not hard to guess that Perry would grow up to inherit his father’s ache to know his family history. Or as I write in Laying the Children’s Ghosts to Rest, that he would become “an echo chamber for his father’s angst.” Fred was told repeatedly by the Church that no records of himself or his family existed. Tragically, he died without ever receiving them. When Perry took up the challenge he used a more direct approach, threatening legal action if the records were not disclosed. This finally pried loose the prized records, though too late for Fred. Sadly it’s not an uncommon story amongst British Home Children.
When I interviewed Perry Snow I was literally on the eve of boarding a plane to England, where I would spend a day in the Church of England archives searching for my grandfather’s records. Cyril William Joyce was another BHC and about Fred’s age (16) when he was sent to Canada in 1926 with three other boys. Cyril’s was one of the first parties to be sent under the new Anglican Church program known as the Empire Settlement Program. By this time in the 1920s, the term ‘waifs and strays’ had begun to become politically incorrect, for obvious reasons.
Snow’s book was one of the first I read when I began to piece together the fact that Cyril too had been a BHC. It was a blistering read, due to the incredibly insensitive manner in which Fred was treated by the Church. And it was an antidote to the sunny-faced hagiographies produced by the child emigration agencies themselves, particularly Barnardo’s. Of the many books sanctioned by Barnardo’s about their work from the late 19th century onwards, it would take until June Rose’s 1986 book For the Sake of the Children before an author was allowed to be fully candid about the failings of the man and the organization. This led to some shocking revelations but of course by that time the culprits were long dead and gone.
Perry Snow is a pioneer in the awareness of British Home Children in Canada. Along with Phyllis Harrison, Joy Parr, Kenneth Bagnell, Gail Corbett, Dave Lorente, John Sayers and others, Snow toiled in what remained a backwater of Canadian historical studies until the 1980s. Incredible to think that a historical event that affected 100,000 people and their millions of descendants should be ignored for so long. Whether by accident or design, it was a shocking oversight, a gaping hole in our national conversation about Canadian identity. Not surprising, given that BHCs were taught to efface themselves almost out of existence. In that sense, these children and their descendants may have had a far bigger impact on Canadian identity than we realize. And as Snow points out, nearly every other immigrant group subjected to injustices of various kinds has been acknowledged except the British Home Children.
So much about success in life has to do with luck and timing, with experience and talent usually coming a close second. Had Perry Snow been writing about the BHCs ten years later than when he began his research in the late ’80s, he could well have found himself a figurehead for the movement. Though controversial for his no-holds-barred approach to telling his father’s story, he brought to light a side of the BHC history—the neglect, the silence, the outright abuse, the efforts to cover tracks—that otherwise may never have surfaced. Or may have taken another few decades to surface. Thankfully much of the veil has lifted in just the past 10 years.
But by the time I interviewed Perry Snow in May 2009, he’d had enough. My interview with him reveals a man reaching the point of exhaustion. After a decade of stonewalling on the part of MPs, senators, government ministers, and the church, it was time to call it quits, or nearly. Instead he decided to dedicate what energy he had left to his BHC database, in the hopes that it would provide a valuable legacy to descendant families still searching for relatives back in Britain.
And so it has. Last year he donated his entire database, containing well over 50,000 entries, to Lori Oschefsky of the British Home Children Advocacy and Research Association in Ontario. Some criticized Snow in the past for charging fees to maintain the database. But prior to the ease of information transfer we now take for granted with the Internet, it was a very labour intensive effort. In this sense, the little optimism that remained to Snow during our interview had to do with the web and its democratizing power. And it turns out he was right—genealogy is now faster and easier than it has ever been—and more popular. Depending on the source, genealogy is widely regarded as among the top three most popular search items on the Internet today.
Which only reinforces Snow’s informed opinion as a psychologist that identity is so basic to human nature that it can’t be suppressed, as many of the child emigration agencies attempted to do. “It is difficult to imagine not knowing who you are. Your most important relationship is with yourself. If you know who you are, you can value yourself as a unique individual. If you do not know who you are, you cannot.”
And as I write in Laying the Children’s Ghosts to Rest, the repercussions of a fractured sense of identity reverberate epigenetically down through the generations to the present. “It’s time for researchers in the field of public health to take seriously human intergenerational reactions,” says Marcus Pembrey, Professor of genetics at the University of London. “A complete understanding of neuropsychiatric disorders, obesity, diabetes and metabolic problems is no longer possible without a transgenerational approach.” University of Western Ontario’s Professor Margaret McNay, herself the daughter of a BHC, has authored academic papers explaining how even a shroud of silence over the past can have a deep impact on descendants. “Traumatized into silence, their parents and relatives transmit the wounds of subjugation and displacement, and not the memory,” writes McNay. “Absent memories become family secrets, known to some members of the family, not known to other members, and, often, intuited by still others. Secrets serve particular functions in families, but when they disrupt the construction of narrative inheritance they also disrupt the formation of identity in children growing up in those families.”
Clearly, ignoring the past in the hopes that it will just go away is no longer an option, if it ever was. Now is the time to hear these voices and honour them for who they were—unique boys and girls who became the men and women who built this country. Not only their successes but their sorrows deserve to be heard if we are ever again to lay claim to being “the compassionate society.”
The Interview: Perry Snow—May 2, 2009, Calgary
JOYCE: My intention in writing a book is that I’m tired of seeing the whole issue on the back burner in Canada. I think it’s interesting that Margaret Humphreys—when she came to Canada—a lot of the Home Children were already quite elderly then, 20 years ago, and many of them were already in homes by that point. And she said that a lot of them had said to her, ‘Well dear, we understand that maybe the Australian case is a bit more of a priority right now and you have our blessing to continue with that.’ But sadly, they’re gone now, and we’re now dealing with people of my generation who are actually the grandchildren. And you’re—
SNOW: I’m first generation (Canadian).
JOYCE: So you’re now—how old are you?
SNOW: Sixty-five. But from the outset—this is going back 10 years for me—just trying to find out who my grandparents were. And that led to the book in 2000. And my frustration is very evident because I’ve encountered nothing but opposition.
JOYCE: What do you mean when you talk about “the illusion of benevolence?”
SNOW: That these organizations had nothing but good intentions, all the kids were treated well and we owe something to these organizations. And that bothers me because it perpetuates the myth that they were only trying to help, and all these kids had better lives in Canada automatically, which is crap. But I’ve had opposition from various organizations about starting a mail list, about starting a website, creating a database, and felt very much on the outside.
So three years ago I finally decided we need a national organization. I set up a non-profit called British Home Children Society, hoping that as an organization I could represent a couple hundred people instead of just one guy banging on about his father. My motive was, as a non-profit, I could get government funding to hire university students to put together a 50,000-person database and also do a marketing campaign. Nothing is going to happen until there’s a national organization that represents some of the five million of us. But that kind of fizzled out; the membership just wasn’t there.
In the meantime, I’m going after the Minister of Culture, the usual federal government funding sources, and getting nowhere, absolutely nowhere. After the election, the new Minister of Culture and Immigration lives in bloody Calgary and I couldn’t get to see him. I wrote, I faxed, I sent him a copy of my book. So ten years later, it’s the same response after writing MPs, senators, whoever.
And so I said, ‘Okay, that’s it boys and girls.’ This is one guy sitting in a small office in his basement, and I’m going to be the guy on the white horse? Not without backup.
But again, you have information that nobody else has. Your grandfather was sent to Alberta. What farms was he on? Other people were on the ship. Where did they go? So that could die with you, you have nowhere to put that.
JOYCE: It’s a good point because one might think, Oh well I’m fine, I’ve got my information, I don’t need to look at the database. But you could help other people searching for relatives.
SNOW: Even as simple as other people on the same ship because their ages were on there—maybe birth dates—that you can’t find anywhere else. So I’ve totally limited myself to the database, there’s nothing else like it. Somebody else is going to have to come along and make an issue out of it, like the native schools, and the other horror stories of the past.
JOYCE: I guess part of the problem is culturally speaking we don’t really want to come to grips with this idea that we did this to our own children before we did it to the natives. I mean, with the native schools obviously it was a much more overt program of cultural genocide. But nevertheless, if you look at the workhouses—
SNOW: It wasn’t much different. I use that analogy in my book too, the motive of, ‘Take the Indian out of the Indian,’ and the same motive applied to these kids. Because of assigning them numbers, taking away their names, brainwashing them into believing they were useless and worthless, and by transporting them overseas totally ensuring all family contacts would be cut forever. That’s the only thing that could have been worse for the natives would have been if we’d shipped them to another country.
Every cultural group that’s ever come to Canada has had the wrongs of the past acknowledged—Native residential schools, the Japanese internment, internment of Germans in World War II, Ukrainians in World War I, whatever. Even in Alberta the sterilization of the retarded. It’s all been acknowledged. And yet this has never been acknowledged. The official line is, ‘Oh, it ended in WWII,’ or, ‘They didn’t ship kids in World War I’. And those are rampant lies. You go to the NAC (National Archives of Canada) database and punch in 1914-15, the war years and see how many kids turn up. They shipped kids all through WWI.
I mention in my book a reference I got from Kenneth Bagnell, a German submarine stopped a ship that had kids on it, and they went, ‘What (are you doing)?’ But it went on. It’s a little hard to rationalize that as ‘rescuing’ kids.
JOYCE: How old is Bagnell’s book now? Nearly 30 years?
SNOW: When I wrote mine, the other reason for writing it was, I looked at what was available and they were all 20 years old, done in the ‘80s. What with all the whitewashing that’s gone on, I figured, well somebody’s got to write something.
JOYCE: See, here’s where I think Phyllis Harrison’s book has been so valuable. I think that woman deserves a medal for the work she did for the Home Children, simply by being a good recorder, sitting down with them and saying, ‘Tell us about your experiences,’ or getting them to write down their experiences in letters to her.
What I find so tragic about this is that we’ve let those generations go now. We’re really into the grandchildren’s generation now with some exceptions like yourself. But I think now we’re tipping into my generation—I’m 49…
SNOW: And that alarms me a little bit just because of the passage of time, because everything gets diluted. I can relate to my father’s experiences; I had a different relationship with him than my other five siblings only because I got to work with the guy a lot. He confided in me, I found out later, more than he had with anybody. My own kids, they have the interest only because I have the interest. But for the average family, it’s not there. Like your kids, however old they are, aren’t going to have the interest until they get to be middle aged and they start thinking about health or where they came from. And things start to get diluted.
JOYCE: I think if you do come from Home Child stock, if you want to call it that, then there’s this gaping hole in your psyche, where there’s a sense of something missing and you want to find it, you want to fill that gap. I think as you write in your book, you cannot kill in people the need to know their family.
SNOW: I get nauseated every Canada Day; I don’t feel a part of it, I don’t feel included. If there’s ever a parade, I have a vision of a little kid with a stick and a sign saying ‘Home Child,’ that’s all, on his own. There’s endless streams of lights and banners and every group is acknowledged, and I’m not there. I get very upset every Remembrance Day. Without even looking I can identify 4,000 (Home Children) who served in WWI. These kids lied about their ages to enlist and they were blown to bits and buried in unknown graves. Very short lives and nobody knows who they were, nobody knows where they were buried and nobody gives a shit. Don’t even ask me how many times I’ve written about that to the Senate, MPs, Veterans Affairs, the Legions; nobody wants to know. And why is that? Every other group has been acknowledged for their military service.
So I don’t know what to do about the ‘don’t want to know’ attitude; I understand it. Canada doesn’t want to acknowledge it because they’re afraid of being held responsible or being sued.
JOYCE: Okay, there’s a question for you then: In your research, have you actually found evidence of home children who have actually sued? There again, I wonder if Phyllis Harrison’s book would quite handily qualify as written affidavits.
SNOW: But you forget who you’re taking on. They’ve been around a long time; they’re churches or they’re charities…
JOYCE: …and government.
SNOW: And government. They’ve had a lot of practice at just sitting back and saying, ‘Oh, a lawsuit. Let’s just put that on the shelf for five years. How old is the guy? He’s probably gonna die soon; we’ll still be here.’
JOYCE: So do you think there’s any hope in this situation for at least getting some acknowledgement, or…?
SNOW: Not without a national organization. If Canada is ever going to advocate for the release of information, they’ve got to be representing more than one or two people. That means about 5,000 voters. The only reason the Natives were successful, or the Japanese were successful, was because they joined forces and started pushing. Any individual can be ignored. I’m just one guy who bangs on about his father. So it’s, ‘Too bad, so sad.’
If you look back, it’s the old British ‘divide and conquer.’ They’ve done it all over the world. You go in, you separate people and you overpower them. And these kids were isolated from each other, from siblings, and they were even isolated by organization. So that isolation kept people powerless.
Those people did not have the children’s best interests at heart, not even in the beginning—I’ve changed my mind about that. It was all about money, it has been and still is.
My generation and yours were powerless because we were ignorant. I honestly believed my father’s case was an isolated incident; I thought it was a one-time thing. I had it confused with WWII evacuation, kids from the Blitz. Where I grew up in Thunder Bay I think even our milkman was a Barnardo boy or something but nobody knew the scale of it. And I didn’t know until I started seeing the numbers: 100,000 kids, maybe five million descendants.
JOYCE: And yet it remains a sort of a specialized backwater of historical information.
SNOW: My only optimism is for the Internet. The Internet is the saving grace because the sharing is instantaneous and without that, no one would ever find me, and I’d never find the information. And it is international. My website—I go in to see how many hits per day—it’s 150 a day for the last 6, 8 years now.
JOYCE: For me, one of the questions I have is the maze of bureaucracy that one has to deal with. So how do you make sure you get the information that you’re due?
SNOW: They have a hundred year history of lying. Their motives are to stall and delay and hope you’ll go away. Their system was designed to disrupt families, separate kids from parents and ensure the ties are never re-established. They haven’t changed about that. If they say their records were bombed in WWII, or flooded or whatever, assume they’re lying.
I’ve been accused of being bitter, twisted, resentful, whatever. I’ve explained, no, it’s indignance. Indignant anger is very quiet, it’s deep inside and it’s pride based. ‘Not with me you don’t, nobody gets off with lying to me.’ But again, these people aren’t doing you any favours, you’re owed this information. First you ask, then you demand.
JOYCE: And as you said before, it’s divide and conquer. But if we all work together we could get much more accomplished, instead of competing with this organization, that organization, everybody fighting each other.
SNOW: Well I guess that’s where my optimism goes back to the Internet. People volunteer information and it gets shared. So in the long run, I think my database is serving a purpose.