“Are we a people who have lost our ghosts? Or are we in fact haunted by them, but can’t remember their names?” —Laying the Children’s Ghosts to Rest, Sean Arthur Joyce, Hagios Press 2014
What do I mean by this? I speak of the 100,000 British Home Children taken from the slums and orphanages of the UK and Ireland in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and sent to work as indentured labour on Canadian farms. This is perhaps the biggest ‘open secret’ in Canadian history, and as many as 1 in 8 Canadians are their descendants. Yet most of us have never even heard the term ‘Home Children.’ It’s as if their tracks through our past have been erased like footprints in a snowstorm.
This is why I’ve chosen the weatherbeaten old metaphor of ‘ghosts’—that which haunts us. And everyone has something that haunts them. The death of a beloved, the road not taken, loves twisted and ruined. Haunting, all of it. So it’s a metaphor everyone can relate to. And like the proverbial ‘bad penny,’ they keep turning up. The unquiet ghost, calling out to the living for redemption. I believe the story of the Canadian Home Children is a story of redemption. Redemption comes in many forms, but no one gets there except through pain.
For that reason there are some hard things in this book—children being beaten, stabbed with pitchforks, left in shallow graves. It may seem pointless to revisit such horrible events. Yet they live on with an energy, a timelessness of their own that defies all will and logic. Even left unspoken, these past traumas echo unconsciously from generation to generation. We know this now from the science of epigenetics. What the mind doesn’t know the body carries out. To pretend the way forward is to forget the past is denial. Acceptance is a more healthy strategy. Not to relive it endlessly but not to cover it up either. Let the descendants own their stories. For many, even to know their family stories has been a challenge, a lifelong quest.
“Let the living heal the dead,” I once wrote in a poem. Twice now in my life ancestors have called out to me—once in a dream and once in my waking life. The dream was of my maternal grandmother Maree waving earnestly to me from across a river—the classic image of death. She was hanging white sheets on a clothesline, trying to get my attention. Until that time in my life I had only my grandfather’s version of her—the hopeless lush who left her kids in the car outside bars. Now the dream gave me a sense of urgency to find out more about her. Luckily my auntie in California was a genealogist. I discovered a whole new side to Maree—her skill with needlepoint, her generosity, the vivacity of her spirit.
In waking life I found myself called by a growing unease that despite knowing so much about my maternal line, I knew absolutely nothing about the Joyces. All I knew was this vague story of my grandfather Cyril Joyce coming from London, England as a young man. When I found his immigration and shipping records from Library and Archives Canada with John Sayers’ help, I realized Cyril must have been a British Home Child. He travelled with only three other boys and a young woman travelling as their chaperone. The only next of kin listed in the immigration records was his mother Nelly back in London. His father George Ochiltree Joyce had simply vanished from his life.
I was never able to track down George Ochiltree Joyce or his death certificate. As I write in Laying the Children’s Ghosts to Rest, I learned that he’d left the comfortable family farm in leafy Dorset for the big city promise of London. I learned that George was a travelling salesman of women’s corsets, ‘commercial traveller’ in British parlance. What a way to make a living in an age before the birth control pill. You try supporting five kids on a salesman’s wages in the deep dark East End of London in the 1920s. Young Cyril’s prospects in East Ham were bleak even by 1926, when he turned 16. His mother was about to make a choice for him that would change his life forever.
In Cyril’s case, his term of indentured servitude was a mere three years before he turned 19—legal age. Despite being told they would be welcomed by Canadians, these children found British class prejudices alive and well in Canada. They were shamed, beaten and excluded from social life. No wonder then that Cyril refused to talk about those years. Like thousands of other Canadian Home Children, he took his stories to his grave. Worse, Cyril’s involuntary emigration cut him off permanently from his English relatives, a common side effect of child immigration. In the book I speculate: Did he harbour a grudge against his mother for making a choice he had no part in? In the end, he settled into a routine Canadian domestic life, with a steady job at the lead smelter in Trail, BC ’til his retirement. Not a step up from what his class might expect back in England but quiet, comfortable. So quiet it was as if he were gradually erasing himself from life—another child ghost in the making.
So when I write that for someone like Cyril to have achieved that seemingly simplest of goals—a home, and his own family, you begin to see why to me it represents a brand of heroism. I write in Children’s Ghosts that I’m skeptical of the whole notion of heroism. Too often it becomes an excuse for mindless idolatry or crass political manipulation. And the big media likes to single out the Big Acts, the ones that will (literally) play out well on the Big Screen. (Home theatre, these days.) We’re conditioned to forget those whose lives were a stoic endurance test as much as a heroic quest. We forget the ones who didn’t make it, the ones not born with the equipment to cope. The ones who fell into violent and dangerous hands, whose prospects in life were cut off. Yet to me, both the survivors and those lost to us fall into their own category of heroism. They are the unsung heroes of Canadian history.
Think about it: Who is the real hero? He who pays to build the Golden City or he who builds it with his own hands? Whatever our regrets over how our ancestors treated First Nations people, Canadian Home Children in a very literal sense built the country we know today. They were the ones up before dawn, stoking the fires, milking the cows, making the breakfast, working ’til late at night. Few of them made it to high school, much less college or university. Which meant that when they grew up, they had to take the hard labour jobs, the menial domestic work. And always, as children or adults, they were on the outside looking in—living out the legacy of shame they were made to carry.
But far more important than heroism to me is redemption. It’s an old and out of fashion idea in these late empire days, but look at the great myths and stories all the way back to Gilgamesh, humanity’s first known epic, and it’s there. Whether it’s the terrified courier in the trenches in the World War I film Gallipoli played by Mel Gibson or Gilgamesh, King of the first great Mesopotamian city-state, they’re looking for redemption—that possibility that there’s meaning somewhere in all the chaos. A point somewhere in the pointlessness.
For people like Gladys Martin—the ‘cover girl’ for Children’s Ghosts—Walter Roberts, Elizabeth Thompson, Fred Snow and my grandfather Cyril Joyce, that redemption, that heroism, manifested itself simply: by transcending the ghosts of pain and neglect to create a home and family. As I write of Cyril: “Despite being wrenched from his family roots in England, he accomplished the most simple yet profound achievement for an ‘orphaned’ child—a home, and roots as a Canadian.”
Many others didn’t live to experience that redemption. George Evans, George Green, Mabel Bell, Clarence Martin, Arnold Walsh and thousands of others didn’t survive to adulthood. Many died in war as underage soldiers. Others killed themselves out of sheer despair. Some died of neglect and beatings. For them, redemption may come through the efforts of their descendants to “let the living heal the dead,” though in doing so, the living also heal themselves.
As psychologist and Home Child descendant Perry Snow explains, a sense of identity is crucial to a healthy, well-adjusted life. And as author Helen Dunmore has stated, “We are creatures of story,” and the most basic story we own is the story of our past, our family. When there are gaps in that story—or worse, unresolved traumas—we remain haunted by it at some level.
Surely facing down what haunts us is the path to redemption—peace of mind, spiritual equilibrium, whatever you want to call it. It’s perhaps the greatest of all ‘miracles’—the chance to finish unfinished business, to lay old ghosts—or in this case, children’s ghosts—to rest.
NOTE: For book tour dates please see next post…