Historical Amnesia: Remembering History’s Ignored Children

Imagine that a mass amnesia had gripped society and we suddenly lost our memory of history. Then imagine that history was rewritten for us, leaving out the entire story of the civil rights movement in the ’60s, or the Suffragettes’ campaigns for women’s vote. Or, to take it to a more Canadian-specific level, imagine that this newly rewritten history left out entirely the Riel Rebellion, or the On to Ottawa trek of unemployed men during the Great Depression, or the role of Tommy Douglas in universal health care.

Of course, political power interests rewrite history all the time. Note that it’s the history of resistance that is itself often ignored or rewritten. It happens daily in the corporate-owned media, which recasts events such as the police shooting of black Americans in a light favourable to authority and can even ignore mass global protests that break historical records. Hence the old expression, “The victors write the history.” Thankfully more honest historians such as Howard Zinn have helped provide balance to this skewed picture of history along with other conscientious writers.

Life for the poor in the early days of capitalism was bleak. Image public domain

Life for the poor in the early days of capitalism was bleak. Image public domain

Now imagine that 100,000 people, whose descendants number up to four million in Canada today, were erased from this new history. Their lives wiped out like text on a whiteboard, their contribution to the building of our nation eliminated. I speak of course of the British Home Children, who due to an accident of birth found that their lives amounted to a zero on the balance sheet of capitalism. These boys and girls, ranging in age from 5 to 16, faced a bitter future in 19th century Britain: scrabbling together a life on the streets of Birmingham, London, Glasgow or Dublin, the brutal regime of a workhouse, or what few overcrowded orphanages provided food and shelter. In Malthusian terms they were viewed by emerging capitalist barons as “surplus population,” an inferior stock in need of culling anyway. Obviously not all of the British elite shared this view. Many aristocrats such as Lord Shaftesbury were all too happy to fund emerging philanthropists such as Annie Macpherson and Dr. T.J. Barnardo in the building of ‘day schools’ and eventually orphanages. But with the industrial revolution displacing more workers than it could employ, even these well-intentioned relief efforts were soon overrun by those in desperate need of help. Remember: this is the era before social programs and welfare, the law of the capitalist jungle: You either do well or you die, period. And if you don’t do well, it’s your own damn fault—you’re defective so you deserve your fate. Sadly, we’re hearing this sociopathic litany repeated in the political rhetoric of late, whether it’s regarding immigration in the EU or poverty in America.

A popular portrait of Dr. Barnardo, whose organization emigrated some 30,000 children to Canada.

A portrait of Dr. Barnardo, whose organization emigrated some 30,000 children to Canada.

So with the orphanages packed to the rafters and a political regime still almost a century away from creating the modern welfare state, there was only one recourse: export the unfortunate children to the British colonies for use as indentured labour. In purely Machiavellian terms, it was a stroke of genius, solving both the social problem at home and the labour problem in the newly developing colonies. The one thing it left out of the equation was the human factor—the tearing effect of separating children from their families and their country of origin and sending them across an ocean to an alien land with almost no one to help them. The descendants of these families are still dealing with this legacy a century later. In recent decades there have been many fine books and documentaries—and one feature film, Oranges and Sunshine—made to redress this gap in our official histories.

And now there’s another chance to set things right. Former Member of Parliament for BC Southern Interior Alex Atamanenko, prior to retiring from politics last year, introduced a motion in the House of Commons calling for an official apology to the British Home Children (BHC) and their descendants in Canada. Former Prime Ministers of both Australia (Kevin Rudd) and Britain (Gordon Brown) have already offered official apologies and some restitution. This is not about ‘compensation,’ but a long overdue acknowledgement of the critical role these neglected children played in an early stage of Canada’s development as a nation, and an apology for the neglect or abuse they suffered. We’re willing to thank our war veterans for their sacrifices but we need to do the same for the families of these children. It’s a sign of strength, not weakness, to come clean and apologize for past wrongs.

The real reason poor British children were brought to Canada—to work. From the image on the 2010 Canada Post stamp. Image: Library & Archives Canada

The real reason poor British children were brought to Canada—to work. From the image on the 2010 Canada Post stamp. Image: Library & Archives Canada

Atamanenko’s successor, MP Richard Cannings, reintroduced the apology motion as Private Members’ bill M-51 in April this year. The text of the motion reads: “That, in the opinion of the House, the government should: (a) issue a formal, unequivocal and sincere apology to Canada’s British Home Children and child migrants, including their families and descendants, for the injustices suffered as a result of its participation in migration schemes between the years 1869 and 1948 thereby enabling the importation of an estimated 100,000 orphaned or destitute children from Britain to provide indentured labour for Canadian farms and households; (b) express its gratitude and appreciation to the families whose ancestors were responsible for building up Canada’s agricultural industry at a critical early point in its development; (c) assist in a coordinated effort with survivors and descendants to track and record their genealogies and ensure that reunification with lost family members is made possible; and (d) take steps to ensure that all Canadians are informed about this important period of history in a way that makes certain it is never forgotten by present or future generations.”

At a time when we are re-examining our public school curriculum to teach the terrible legacy of the Native residential schools, the story of Canada’s British Home Children deserves equal consideration as a vital component of public history. As much as anything, it reminds us that capitalism’s victims are of any colour or ethnicity. An estimated 10 percent of Canadians are descended from these children.

“Torn from family, friends and country, these children were met with severe discrimination and often placed with no further monitoring in harsh or abusive situations where they were exploited,” noted Atamanenko in February 2015.

The famous image of a shipload of Barnardo girls arriving in Halifax, circa 1920. Courtesy Library & Archives Canada

The famous image of a shipload of Barnardo girls arriving in Halifax, circa 1920. British Home Children were typically exported in large groups like this. Courtesy Library & Archives Canada

Lori Oschefsky, founder and CEO of British Home Child Advocacy and Research Association (BHCARA), has been collecting signatures for a petition calling for the apology for some time. “For the most part, these children were not picked up from the streets but came from intact families, who, through sickness or even death of one of their parents, had fallen on hard times,” says Oschefsky. “Because there was no social system in place to help them get through these difficult circumstances, the family had no other way than to surrender their offspring” to the various organizations offering assistance, such as Barnardo’s, Quarriers, National Children’s Homes, etc.

“Never should defenseless, lonely, loveless children be treated in such a way anywhere in the world,” declared Tom Isherwood, a Child Migrant brought to Canada at the age of 8 with Fairbridge Farm Schools. “When asked to be heard, nobody listened, not even God, as we were to be seen and not heard.”

ACTION: To support MP Cannings’ motion you can sign petition e-312 at the Parliamentary website here: https://petitions.parl.gc.ca/en/Petition/Details?Petition=e-312

FOR MORE INFORMATION: Richard Cannings’ website: http://richardcannings.ndp.ca / Cannings’ motion on the Parliamentary website: http://www.parl.gc.ca/Parliamentarians/en/members/Richard-Cannings(89327)/Motions?sessionId=152&documentId=8175447 / British Home Children Advocacy & Research Association (BHCARA) website: http://canadianbritishhomechildren.weebly.com

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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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One Response to Historical Amnesia: Remembering History’s Ignored Children

  1. Pingback: This week’s crème de la crème — August 6, 2016 | Genealogy à la carte

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