It happened so quickly most Members of Parliament were barely aware of it. On February 15 a Private Member’s motion brought forward by Bloc Québécois MP Luc Thériault was passed. The motion calls for the House of Commons to apologize to the families of the British Home Children brought to Canada to work as indentured labourers on Canadian farms during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The text of the motion reads:
“That the House recognize the injustice, abuse and suffering endured by the British Home Children as well as the efforts, participation and contribution of these children and their descendants within our communities; and offer its sincere apology to the former British Home Children who are still living and to the descendants of these 100,000 individuals who were shipped from Great Britain to Canada between 1869 and 1948, and torn from their families to serve mainly as cheap labour once they arrived in Canada.”
The manner in which the motion was so suddenly adopted speaks to the often-convoluted political process on Parliament Hill. Working with former Bloc Québécois leader Gilles Duceppe, Thériault was able to do something of an end-run around the usual process for getting Private Member’s legislation passed. By gaining the support of the four House parties, the motion received unanimous assent and passed quickly in the House. Thériault had been lobbied by Sandra Joyce, who formed the advocacy group British Home Child Group International, and has been an ardent supporter and worker for the apology cause. The four party MPs who agreed to the motion were Judy Sgro, Liberal (Humber River-Black Creek); Mark Strahl, Conservative (Chilliwack-Hope); Jenny Kwan, NDP (Vancouver East); and Elizabeth May, Green (Saanich-Gulf Islands).
The apology motion is the result of years of educating the public about the much-neglected history of the British Home Children in Canada. Both Sandra Joyce and Lori Oschefski, CEO of the British Home Children Advocacy and Research Association, have been circulating apology petitions for several years now. While Alex Atamanenko was MP (NDP) for the BC Southern Interior riding in which I live, he contacted me after reading my book, Laying the Children’s Ghosts to Rest, about drafting an apology motion. Although the resulting motion M-568 was brought forward in the House by Atamanenko, it failed to gain any traction with the Conservative dominated government under Prime Minister Harper. Indeed, while Jason Kenney held the post of Minister for Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism in the Harper cabinet, he was quoted as saying: “Canadians don’t expect the government to apologize for every sad event in our history.” Yet this sentiment apparently didn’t apply to PM Harper’s official apology to the former inmates of Native residential schools. That long-awaited apology was issued on June 11, 2008.
When Atamanenko retired, the riding had been re-drawn, bringing into it two vastly different regions of BC—the West Kootenay and South Okanagan. The new riding, South Okanagan-West Kootenay, was probably an attempt to skew the vote toward a Conservative victory. It failed. NDP candidate Richard Cannings was easily elected for the riding in the 2015 federal election. One of his first actions upon taking office was to contact me about re-presenting the motion, now designated M-51. It was presented by Cannings in the House along with two other Private Member’s motions on May 5, 2016.
It remains to be seen whether the vote will lead to an official Government apology with full public ceremony. Although my understanding of Parliamentary procedure is weak, from what I’ve been told by Cannings, an apology in the House doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing as an official federal Government apology. To that end, Oschefsky and I are working to press the Government for a formal official apology ceremony with BHC families invited as special guests. Cannings contacted me by phone from Parliament Hill today to tell me that he’d managed to make the request in Question Period. We await the response of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government, which so far has shown great sensitivity in matters of social justice. Within a month of being elected he was pressing Pope Francis for a Catholic apology to the First Nations people forced to endure residential schools run by the church. This was followed in May 2016 with an apology for the 1914 Komagata Maru incident, in which “hundreds of Sikh, Muslim and Hindu passengers were denied entry to Canada and forced to return to an uncertain and ultimately violent fate in India.”
There’s plenty of precedent for public apology ceremonies for the British Home Children in the official apologies offered by the British and Australian governments. When former Australian PM Kevin Rudd apologized on November 16, 2009, BHC families were invited to Parliament in Canberra, where he addressed them all from the platform in an hour-long ceremony. It was very moving; in video footage you can see tears in the eyes of many faces. Australian child migrants suffered disproportionately from sexual and physical abuse. Unlike Canadian child migrants, the Australians were mostly kept in institutions run by the Christian Brothers, a Catholic sect. They were brutally exploited for their labour, building roads, schools and other infrastructure.
Notably, PM Rudd did not limit his apology to sexual or physical abuse, but noted “the emotional starvation, the cold absence of love, tenderness and care.” He spoke of the “absolute tragedy of childhoods lost, childhoods spent instead in austere and institutional places, where names were replaced by numbers, spontaneous play by regimented routine, the joy of learning by the repetitive drudgery of menial work. And let us resolve today that this apology becomes a turning point in our national story… to do all in our power to never allow this to happen again.”
When former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown made his government’s official apology on February 24, 2010, Canadian and Australian BHCs were invited to London for a ceremony where the apology was given. “Sixty survivors were flown to London so they could listen to the statement in person. Conservative leader David Cameron said the programme had been operated by all political parties and Mr. Brown’s apology was on behalf of ‘all of us,’” noted the BBC report. “The Child Migrant Trust said the significance of the apology was ‘immense.’ Director Margaret Humphreys said: ‘It gives them [the migrants] the recognition they have sought for so long—and, sadly, that so many have not lived to witness.’ …Until now, no British prime minister has ever delivered an official apology, despite repeated demands from victims’ groups.”
In my book I interviewed Patricia Skidmore, who was there with her mother Marjorie, who had been sent to Canada with Fairbridge Farm Schools in the 1940s. Unfortunately PM Brown focused mostly on the Australian child emigrants, who were a fairly small number (7,000) compared to the 100,000 Canadian BHCs—some say as many as 120,000. There were federal government subsidies paid to the emigration agencies to bring the children here and our immigration officials worked closely with them. Sadly, Marjorie Skidmore did not live to hear of the apology motion just passed in Canadian Parliament. Skidmore died earlier this month.
In a sense it’s too bad Cannings’ motion wasn’t the one that was passed, since it was drafted to carefully include three essential points along with the call for an apology: that the federal Government should, “(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.”
During my tour of Canada to promote Laying the Children’s Ghosts to Rest, I met BHC descendants at every reading. Many of them told me they’d learned nothing of their own family history until middle age or later, either from their own parents or from their public schooling. This pattern was typical in my research for the book. I met two young women working toward their master’s degrees in Canadian Studies and only one of them had heard of the British Home Children, and only briefly at that. This is at a university level of education! It would be like skipping completely over the chapter on the Riel Rebellion, or the Plains of Abraham. So clause D of our motion would have held the Government to account to remedy that huge oversight in the teaching of our nation’s history. But BHC advocates are nothing if not determined, so we may yet see integration of the topic into our school curriculum.
By no means is the call for an apology unanimous among BHC families; many are quite against it. Unlike the Australian experience, which was almost universally negative, many Canadian farm families treated their child migrants well, though very few were ever adopted. It’s important to note, however, that none of the Canadian initiatives have called for financial restitution. Atamanenko and Cannings’ motion merely calls for government assistance retrieving family records.
What matters, ultimately, is that this is a triumph for BHC families who felt that their ancestors were badly treated, neglected or abused. Everyone who has had a hand in the apology motion in whatever form deserves congratulations for a sense of civic duty that goes above and beyond the call.
NOTE: If you wish to support an official apology ceremony, please sign this petition: https://www.change.org/p/open-letter-to-the-right-honourable-prime-minister-trudeau
 Parliamentary biography: http://www.lop.parl.gc.ca/ParlInfo/Files/Parliamentarian.aspx?Item=d89e2700-537a-48d1-96f2-c55ef4f7caf1&Language=E&Section=ALL
 Sean Arthur Joyce, Laying the Children’s Ghosts to Rest: Canada’s Home Children in the West, Hagios Press, 2014, p. 49; “Canada doesn’t plan child migrant apology,” CBC News, Nov. 16, 2009, http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/canada-doesn-t-plan-child-migrant-apology-1.826140
 Official text of apology: http://www.aadnc-aandc.gc.ca/eng/1100100015644/1100100015649
 Official website of Richard Cannings, MP: http://richardcannings.ndp.ca/cannings-tables-first-pieces-of-private-members-legislation
 “Justin Trudeau says he’ll engage Pope on apology for residential schools,” CBC News, December 16, 2015, http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/aboriginal-residential-schools-trudeau-meeting-1.3367026
 “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
 “Australian apology to British child migrants: speech in full,” The Telegraph, November 16, 2009, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/australiaandthepacific/australia/6578427/Australian-apology-to-British-child-migrants-speech-in-full.html
 “Kevin Rudd’s apology to the ‘Forgotten Australians,’ YouTube excerpt, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3znXsldzMRo
 “Gordon Brown apologizes to child migrants sent abroad,” BBC News, February 24, 2010, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/8531664.stm; Video of apology: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4MEXAdmEmlM
 “Gordon Brown apologizes to child migrants sent abroad,” BBC News, February 24, 2010, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/8531664.stm
 Sean Arthur Joyce, Laying the Children’s Ghosts to Rest: Canada’s Home Children in the West, Hagios Press, 2014, pp. 48, 266, 269, 273;
 “Remembering Marjorie Skidmore,” by Patricia Skidmore, February 13, 2017, https://www.dundurn.com/news/Remembering-Marjorie-Skidmore
 Text of Motion M-568, http://www.parl.gc.ca/Parliamentarians/en/members/Alex-Atamanenko(30903)/Motions
Thank you for your mention, Art. The British Home Child Group International was formed over two years ago. Aside from writing three books on the subject, based on my BHC father and uncle (the first released in 2011 at the very first British Home Child Day in Ontario, the second in 2014 and the third in 2015) I have personally collected thousands of signatures for an Apology including one epetition that garnered about 1,000 signatures. As well as working on a Change.org petition that collected 1,800 signatures world-wide including many signatures from German contacts where I lived for a time.
This motion to have an Apology adopted had to have unanimous support in the House and we have to thank Gilles Duceppe (along with Luc Theriault, MP BQ) who worked tirelessly to get all parties to agree, including speaking to the Prime Minister himself. In order for it to be adopted, some of the federal parties insisted that the ‘Government of Canada’ be changed to the ‘House of Commons’. All parties were willing to agree to that but it delayed promoting the motion. Previous to Mr. Duceppe getting involved, all our efforts (phoning and emailing all MPs in their own preferred language, collecting thousands of signatures) came to nought. I met Mr. Duceppe at a CTV interview I did with him in Montreal after doing a presentation there and we have stayed in touch since then. As we were on our way to the opening of his play Ne M’Oublie Pas in Montreal on the same day, he asked Karen Mahoney and I to reroute our way to Ottawa in order to do the media scrum if the motion was passed.
Mr. Duceppe had previously made a motion in the House of Commons in 2010. His passion stems from the loneliness his maternal Home Child grandfather experienced. He was sent from Ireland by the Catholic Church to a French speaking family in Quebec. Mr Duceppe often spoke to his grandfather about the loneliness he experienced as he did not speak French and the family did not speak English.
I applaud your efforts, Art, in also working tirelessly in getting two MPs to speak out on our Home Children’s behalf. I also thank Judy Sgro for tabling the petitions she received many times. Good luck on your future endeavours!!
Perhaps I missed the bit about the children and how meaningful this was to the descendants.
Thank you for your comment lorio2. To clarify: my comment was more about the process of this Apology. Of course, the Apology is for the over 100,000 children who were sent here to work as indentured farm workers and domestics like my father and uncle, Gilles Duceppe’s grandfather and Art Joyce’s grandfather. It was also to all of the descendants. “and offer its sincere apology to the former British Home Children who are still living and to the descendants of these 100,000 individuals”.
Anyone who stands up for those with no voices is a hero in my book, so thank you Sandra Joyce for doing so. And yes, lorio2, this is very meaningful for the children and their descendants. Being one (descendant) I would like to thank all those who worked towards this: Sandra Joyce and Lori Oschefski being the movers and shakers in this movement. My wish would be that all sides would work together and perhaps by presenting a unified front make faster headway.
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Thank for fighting for the silent voices that cannot be heard. My family has suffered in so many ways because of this. Thank you is not a big enough word for what you have done. My heart goes out to all the families that have suffered through this for far too many years. ❤
My late father was a British Home Child who was sent from England to a Canadian farm to work as a child labourer. While there he was injured using a saw which almost severed his arm. My father was a violent alcoholic and my mother suffered cuts, bruises and broken bones, with alot over verbal abuse thrown in for good measure. My 2 brothers (10 & 12 years older than me) suffered serious beatings, often being woken from their sleep to be hit with whatever was at hand and for no reason other than to feed a drunk’s rage. When my oldest brother was a baby, my father threw his army boot across the room at him while he was crying in his crib. This action knocked my brother out and he suffered brain damage as a result. This is what I grew up seeing – the whole family was shattered by this one person, who himself had his life shattered. It’s hard to make excuses for someone like my father but he clearly didn’t get appropriate relationship and parenting skills being yanked from his country, and being put on a boat and dumped in Canada to live with strangers. Many lives have been altered as a result of this decision made by government. An apology is the least that should be given.
Katie: sorry to hear of your family’s suffering. Sadly these things often leapfrog generations so that children and grandchildren also suffer. All we can do is be responsible for our own mental and emotional health in hopes that it will stop with us.