Review: ‘Forgotten’ documentary disappointing

“The act of uprooting children and sending them, alone, across the ocean to work in a strange land… must be regarded as one of the most Draconian measures in the entire history of children in English-speaking society. Its impact on the life of a sensitive child—even one who was placed in reasonable circumstances—is difficult to measure, sometimes even difficult to imagine.” —Kenneth Bagnell, The Little Immigrants[1]

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

  1. Digging Deep vs. Going Shallow

Competent but shallow—a kind of Coles Notes version of the history of the British Home Children in Canada. That’s how I would describe Forgotten, the new documentary directed by Eleanor McGrath. Like a capable actor, she hits all her marks and gets her lines right—hitting all the essential points of this shameful chapter in Canadian history—but never manages to fully connect with the emotional core of the issue. In fact, at times, she seems to deliberately pull back from the raw emotion lurking just beneath the surface.

'Laying the Children's Ghosts' cover. Courtesy Hagios Press.

‘Laying the Children’s Ghosts’ cover. Courtesy Hagios Press.

What’s telling here—and in the 7 years of research I did for my own book on the subject, Laying the Children’s Ghosts to Rest[2]—is just how close to the surface that woundedness is for many British Home Children and their descendants. Often the same is true of war veterans—it’s well known that trauma changes neural circuitry in the brain, so the emotions associated with a traumatic event are easily triggered when the memory is recalled, even a half-century later. For me the single most powerful moment of Forgotten is when an elderly gentleman is recalling his arrival at his Canadian host’s farm. “The sense of loneliness…” he begins, but grief chokes off the rest of his sentence. Yet even here, McGrath quickly cuts to the next scene, as if afraid to linger in the full potency of that moment.

Certainly not all of the Home Children were badly treated, and McGrath seems to focus heavily on the positive experiences in her interviews. To her credit, she includes an interview clip from one such individual, Harry Thompson, who admits that while he was one of the lucky ones, many of the rest were treated “like slaves.” Another poignant moment in the film comes with the interview of Peterborough Home Children advocate Ivy Sucee, whose father was a ‘Barnardo boy.’ (Barnardo’s, founded by Dr. Thomas J. Barnardo, was responsible for sending to Canada some 30,000 of the 100,000 total child immigrants.) She tells the story of him being forced to sleep in the barn and having to go out in pre-dawn darkness to dig vegetables to feed himself. This was far from an uncommon experience for these children.

Child emigration was a poor solution to the poverty created by the Industrial Revolution. Image public domain

Child emigration was a poor solution to the poverty created by the Industrial Revolution. Image public domain

Also to her credit, McGrath interviews Home Children descendants who note the lingering sense of loss due to the separation from their families of origin. Many only discovered their Home Child connections in late middle age, by which time family members in Britain had passed away, robbing Canadian descendants of the potential to reconnect. Even among those who did learn the story before Home Child parents or grandparents died, some seemed to suffer an emotional hollowing out. In this regard, Sandra Joyce’s story of a father who gradually became more and more distant carries a deep tragic resonance. A common theme amongst descendants is that their Home Children parents seemed incapable of expressing affection or love, a legacy of being treated as servants at best, beasts of burden at worst.

McGrath also makes no mention of the Home Children who suffered sexual abuse. Just this week while I was selling books at a local Christmas craft fair, I had an elderly woman come up to me and confess that her uncle had been a ‘Barnardo boy’ who was molested and subsequently molested her as a girl. Multiply that across the 100,000 original Home Children sent to Canada and their four million descendants and I’m willing to bet you’ll find a lot more such incidents. But the deep shame that comes with sexual abuse has kept them mostly silent. In Children’s Ghosts I wrote about two such scandals, one at the Prince of Wales Fairbridge Farm School on Vancouver Island[3] and another with Barnardo’s former Canadian superintendent of operations Alfred Owen,[4] both quickly hushed up by perpetrators and government alike.

To be fair to McGrath, she is not a Home Child descendant, so connecting with these emotional legacies may be difficult. Her interest was sparked by an encounter with the aging Fegan’s distribution home building at 295 George Street, Toronto that had been slated for demolition. (Fegan’s was one of the many child emigration agencies in Britain that brought children to Canada.) Still, it’s the filmmaker’s job to use their creative and empathic powers to connect with emotions that may be foreign to them. She gets close to this with Home Children interviewees who speak of the pain of being stigmatized as children, called “street rats,” and “gutter rats.” Yet she misses a golden opportunity to give an in-depth picture of what it would have been like for a Home Child living and working on a Canadian farm. There’s no shortage of primary source material for these experiences—most notably Phyllis Harrison’s excellent The Home Children,[5] composed entirely of the words of the Home Children themselves.

  1. The Value of Apology

Although McGrath in her recent TV Ontario (TVO) interview with Steve Paikin[6] claims to take no position on an official government apology to the Home Children, she loads up the final reel of Forgotten with those who say they don’t want one. If she was truly striving for a balanced narrative that allows viewers to make up their own minds, she should have interviewed equally those who are for an apology. And instead of only interviewing MP Phil McColeman, who sees no need for an official apology, a balanced approach calls for equal face time with MP Alex Atamanenko, who championed an apology motion in Parliament before his retirement, or with his successor, Richard Cannings, who brought the motion forward as one of his first acts as a newly elected MP this spring. McGrath also avoids mentioning that two of her interviewees, Lori Oschefsky and Sandra Joyce, are circulating apology petitions. As Oschefsky aptly points out in the film, “Britain was the richest country in the Empire. They should have cared for these children in their own country.”

And where is McGrath’s research into the responses to the British and Australian official government apologies in 2009 and 2010? In Laying the Children’s Ghosts to Rest, I wrote of the reaction of Marjorie (Arnison) Skidmore, who was sent to Canada with the Fairbridge Farm Schools program: “When Patricia and her mother attended Prime Minister (Gordon) Brown’s apology in London, a reporter asked Marjorie where she felt she belonged. In recent years she had become close to her English relatives, rebuilding family ties that had been lost. ‘She had to think abut it,’ Patricia recalls, ‘and with determination said, ‘I belong in Canada with my children.’ It took her 73 years to be able to say that and it was Brown’s apology I believe that allowed her to move forward in this way, and accept her past.’”[7] Skidmore is just one of many Home Children who felt a sense of closure as a result of an official apology.

Early group of girls at Prince of Wales Fairbridge Farm School in Duncan, BC. Courtesy Ron Smith / Fairbridge Chapel Society

Early group of girls at Prince of Wales Fairbridge Farm School in Duncan, BC. Courtesy Ron Smith / Fairbridge Chapel Society

This isn’t rocket science, it’s a basic principle of human psychology. “Apology is not just a social nicety,” writes Beverly Engel in Psychology Today.[8] “It is an important ritual, a way of showing respect and empathy for the wronged person. … While an apology cannot undo harmful past actions, if done sincerely and effectively, it can undo the negative effects of those actions.”[9] It’s also a founding principle of restorative justice programs, which treat crime not with punishment but with restitution between perpetrators and victims, starting with an apology.[10]

In psychological terms, what you don’t feel, you can’t heal. Most victims of trauma or abuse had to repress their feelings as children in order to survive psychologically. Thus, the work of recovery is facilitated by bringing long-repressed feelings back to consciousness, so that they may be fully integrated in a healthy way. In Children’s Ghosts, I wrote about the science of epigenetics, first established in cross-generational studies of Holocaust families[11] and now being extended to First Nations survivors of residential schools.[12] These studies have established that the expression of the gene is impacted by social environment, so that PTSD victims transmit symptoms to their children who were not exposed to the original trauma.

By pretending an apology has no effect, we merely fall into the trap of perpetuating the misguided Victorian ethos of, “We don’t talk about feelings here. Just suck it up and get over it.” This was the very ethos that justified everything from the slave trade to child labour. With any such justification, the essential question is: Who benefits? In Children’s Ghosts I write that in the case of child migration, it was quite clearly the architects of Britain’s Industrial Revolution, who offloaded the costs of their pursuit of profit on society. And from an epigenetic standpoint, the ‘No Talk, No Feel Rule’ merely perpetuates the effects of trauma down the generations.

First group of Fairbridge boys on a farm school still forming, 1936. Photo courtesy Ron Smith / Fairbridge Chapel Society

First group of Fairbridge boys on a farm school still forming, 1936. Note how young some of the boys are. Photo courtesy Ron Smith / Fairbridge Chapel Society

So why is it okay to offer an official apology to Native residential school survivors, or the survivors of Japanese-Canadian war internment camps, but not Home Children families? This year Prime Minister Justin Trudeau even apologized for the 1914 Komagata Maru incident, when a boatload of Sikh immigrants were turned away from Canada.[13] Why the double standard?

Sadly, the no apology ‘consensus’ implied by Forgotten reinforces the status quo. MP Richard Cannings recently sent to me the response of the Parliamentary Secretary to his apology motion.[14] It reads, in part: “It is generally agreed that their living and working conditions were poorly supervised in Canada, leaving the children vulnerable to abuse and prejudice. It is only right that Canadians remember the Home Children/Child Migrants and the contribution they and their descendants have made to the development of our country.” But then, as if saying, “We think we’ve done enough on this issue,” the statement points to the Canadian government declaration of 2010 as the ‘Year of the Home Child,’ the unveiling of a Canada Post stamp the same year, the installation of commemorative plaques at the former receiving home in Stratford, Ontario, and historic sites and museums at Grosse Isle, Quebec and Pier 21 in Halifax. “Library and Archives Canada,” it continues, “has worked in cooperation with Home Children stakeholder groups to make key archival information available to former Home Children and their descendants,” and that is certainly a strong mark in their favour. In addition, “The Canadian Museum of History and Telefilm Canada have also worked to document the history of the child migrant movement in Canada,” and some years ago the CBC produced a documentary.

What McGrath does get right is the fact that no child in a Canadian school should grow to adulthood ignorant of this important aspect of our history. Something that affects 1 in 10 Canadians cannot be consigned to the dustbin of history. But if all we learn of this or any history is ‘just the facts,’ stripped of context and impact, then our understanding of it remains shallow. And the possibility of learning to avoid the mistakes and crimes of history is lost. If that’s how history continues to be taught, no wonder kids hate it. Surely we can do better.

FOOTNOTES:

[1] Kenneth Bagnell, The Little Immigrants: The Orphans Who Came to Canada, Macmillan Canada, Toronto, 1980, p. 242.

[2] Sean Arthur Joyce, Laying the Children’s Ghosts to Rest: Canada’s Home Children in the West, Hagios Press, Regina, 2014.

[3] Sean Arthur Joyce, Laying the Children’s Ghosts to Rest: Canada’s Home Children in the West, Hagios Press, Regina, 2014, p. 252.

[4] Sean Arthur Joyce, Laying the Children’s Ghosts to Rest: Canada’s Home Children in the West, Hagios Press, Regina, 2014, pp. 142–43.

[5] Phyllis Harrison, editor, The Home Children: Their Personal Stories, Watson & Dwyer Publishing, Winnipeg, 1979, out of print but available through abebooks.com.

[6] http://tvo.org/blog/current-affairs/bringing-forgotten-british-home-children-out-of-the-shadows

[7] Sean Arthur Joyce, Laying the Children’s Ghosts to Rest: Canada’s Home Children in the West, Hagios Press, Regina, 2014, p. 273.

[8] Beverly Engel, ‘The Power of Apology,’ Psychology Today, July 1, 2002, https://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200207/the-power-apology

[9] See also Benjamin Ho, ‘A Theory of Apologies,’ Stanford Business School thesis, 2005: “Beyond the use of apologies in daily interpersonal interactions, apologies appear in organizational design, political reputations, legal litigation, international relations, corporate governance, and beyond.” http://web.stanford.edu/group/peg/Papers%20for%20call/ho-apologies-mar2005-draft.pdf

[10] According to the Centre for Justice and Reconciliation: The foundational principles of restorative justice have been summarized as follows: 1) Crime causes harm and justice should focus on repairing that harm; 2) the people most affected by the crime should be able to participate in its resolution; 3) the responsibility of the government is to maintain order and of the community to build peace. http://restorativejustice.org/restorative-justice/about-restorative-justice/tutorial-intro-to-restorative-justice/lesson-1-what-is-restorative-justice/

[11] Charles Portney, ‘Intergenerational Transmission of Trauma: An Introduction for the Clinician,’ 2003; Melissa C. Kahane-Nissenbaum, ‘Exploring Intergenerational Transmission of Trauma in Third Generation Holocaust Survivors,’ 2011, Scholarly Commons; Margaret McNay, ‘Absent Memory, Family Secrets, Narrative Inheritance,’ 2009, University of Western Ontario.

[12] To cite only one such study: Bombay, Matheson, and Anisman, ‘Intergenerational Trauma: Convergence of Multiple Processes among First Nations peoples in Canada,’ Carleton University Institute of Neuroscience / Department of Psychology.

[13] ‘Justin Trudeau apologizes in House for 1914 Komagata Maru incident, CBC News, May 18, 2016, http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/komagata-maru-live-apology-1.3587827

[14] Private email to the author, December 2, 2016, with attachment, Parliamentary response to Private Members Bill M-51, available upon request.

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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!
This entry was posted in Barnardo's Homes, Film, Home Children, social commentary and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Review: ‘Forgotten’ documentary disappointing

  1. Sandra Joyce says:

    Thank you, Art, for mention of the fact that we have ongoing petitions available for Canadian Citizens and residents to sign. Even if you have signed a previous petition, you may sign this one: https://petitions.parl.gc.ca/en/Petition/Search?keyword=&sponsor=&RPP=20&order=Recent&Page=1&category=Open&text=331

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