Western Canadian book tour

The book is finally out! I say “finally” because, as any author can tell you, the long process of getting a book to press can take years. It’s not unlike the anticipation and stress faced by a mother through the nine months of pregnancy, and then birthing labour. There are times you wonder if it’s ever going to happen and many, many times when you wonder if all the stress is worth it. And with any book of history, there can be many years of research before you even begin writing. But just as with the birth of a child, when it finally arrives, all your doubts are swept away.

For me it began seven years ago with the discovery that my grandfather Cyril William Joyce was a British Home Child. That stoked my ever-active curiosity and so I began to read every book on the subject I could get my hands on. There are some fine examples available—Ken Bagnell’s superb The Little Immigrants; Margaret Humphreys’ Empty Cradles, leading to the equally fine film Oranges and Sunshine; Joy Parr’s groundbreaking Labouring Children; Uprooted by Roy Parker, and many more. And for researchers, Marjorie Kohli’s The Golden Bridge is an indispensible addition to the bookshelf. After reading Bagnell’s book I also read Perry Snow’s Neither Waif Nor Stray: The Search for a Stolen Identity. Although uneven from a literary standpoint, it remains an important text on the history of the Home Children.

Gladys Martin is our 'cover girl' because I found this to be a powerful picture. Courtesy Hagios Press

Gladys Martin is our ‘cover girl’ because I found this to be a powerful picture. Courtesy Hagios Press

And now comes my book. I wanted to find an angle that none of the other books had covered, and that turned out to be the Western Canadian perspective. What happened to the boys and girls who were sent to work on farms on the prairies? How many made their way to BC? Although numbers remain elusive, my research on the Fairbridge Farm School, located on Vancouver Island and briefly at the Fintry Farm in the lush orchard region of the Okanagan was yet another eye-opener on the Western experience.

Not content with producing a dry, dull history text, I wanted instead to focus on the individual experience of these children. With the help of a Columbia Basin Trust grant I was able to tour the East Kootenays and meet descendants of the British Home Children. This gave me the material I needed to focus on a handful of individual stories. I felt this was necessary because during the 80 years that child immigration was practiced—1869 to 1949, when the last Fairbridge kids were shipped—they were treated as a kind of faceless commodity, an amorphous mass of nascent humanity. Their individuality was subsumed by the sheer numbers being shipped to the colonies—groups of 250 boys or girls were not unusual. One one occasion, a Barnardo’s manager sheepishly reported that he was unable to come up with the 450 children wanted for a shipment to Canada.

The first group of boys at Fairbridge Farm School, Duncan, BC 1936. Courtesy Ron Smith/Fairbridge Chapel Association

The first group of boys at Fairbridge Farm School, Duncan, BC 1936. Courtesy Ron Smith/Fairbridge Chapel Association

I’ve always been a ‘big picture’ thinker, so while focusing in on the individual trials and tribulations of these boys and girls, I also sought understanding of the larger repercussions on society. That meant delving—however superficially—into the realms of psychology, sociology and epigenetics. I needed to know: How does past trauma or other unresolved issues resonate down through the generations? As it turns out, its reach is long. Even where the story is never told to descendants, the emotional effects linger, as Professor Margaret McNay discovered.

So here I am now, about to launch into a tour of Western Canada, in part thanks to my publisher, Paul Wilson at Hagios. I want to thank Paul from the bottom of my heart for being just a great guy to deal with through the complicated process of bringing a book to birth. The advantage of a small publisher is that you can have an open, two-way communication often not possible with the giant corporate publishers. When I was unhappy with the original cover design—finding it too textbook-like and too similar to Kohli’s book cover—he was willing to do a redesign. Even better, he was willing to take into consideration my years of experience as a publication designer. I lobbied Paul to use the photo of Gladys Martin on the cover because I found I couldn’t look away from her eyes. There was a child who, at age 10 or so, obviously had a much older soul inside. I realized how compelling that would be to anyone looking at the cover. But best of all, it visually made the point—superimposed on the generic group shot of the girls she arrived in Canada with—that this was a story about how individual boys and girls were affected.

I hope to see many British Home Child descendants at my book launches—there are about four million of us in this country. Those I’ve met already have been inspiring to me and I want to thank all the families who so generously opened up their personal archives to me. You know who you are! Without you, the amazing stories of Gladys Martin, Walter Roberts, George Evans, Joe Harwood, and Elizabeth Thompson would never have been told to a larger audience. The story of Leslie Vivian Rogers, the namesake of my old high school in Nelson, BC, had to be compiled from archival material, since he died without heirs. Yet it remains perhaps the most triumphant story of the book. The story of the Fairbridge Farm Schools had to be treated rather less personally due to legal issues, but hopefully I managed to convey what it was like—both good and bad—to grow up in a residential farm school.

I look forward to hearing readings from the other authors on this tour—Vangie Bergum, Dee Hobsbawn-Smith and Ellen Burt, whose book When the Path is Not a Straight Line is a highly enjoyable read for anyone who knows or loves the Kootenays. Look forward to seeing everyone at a book launch!



About seanarthurjoyce

I am a poet, journalist and author with a strong commitment to the environment and social justice. If anything, I have too many interests and too little time in a day to pursue them all. Film, poetry, literature, music, mythology, and history probably top the list. My musical interests lie firmly in rock and blues with a smattering of folk and world music. I consider myself lucky to have lived during the great flowering of modern rock music during its Golden Age in the late 1960s/early '70s. In poetry my major inspirations are Dylan Thomas, Rilke, Neruda and the early 20th century British/American poets: Auden, Eliot, Cummings. My preferred cinema includes the great French auteurs, Kirosawa, Orson Welles, and Film Noir. My preferred social causes are too numerous to mention but include banning GMOs, eliminating poverty (ha-ha), and a sane approach to forest conservation and resource extraction. Wish me—wish us all—luck on that one!
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1 Response to Western Canadian book tour

  1. Jeff Nguyen says:

    Congratulations on your newly published book. I hope that your book receives the widespread acclaim you deserve and best to you on your book tour.

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