It’s just one more reason to celebrate being Canadian. On February 7, House of Commons motion M-133, sponsored by Conservative MP Guy Lauzon (Stormont—Dundas—South Glengarry), passed unanimously 294–0 in Parliament. The motion declares September 28 national British Home Child Day. It’s a long overdue recognition of the more than 100,000 boys and girls brought to this country as child immigrants and indentured labourers between 1869–1948. It’s estimated that there are four million descendants of British Home Children living in Canada today—or about 1 in 9 of us.
The text of Lauzon’s motion reads: “That, in the opinion of the House, the government should recognize the contributions made by the over 100,000 British Home Children to Canadian society, their service to our armed forces throughout the twentieth century, the hardships and stigmas that many of them endured, and the importance of educating and reflecting upon the story of the British Home Children for future generations by declaring September 28 of every year, British Home Child Day in Canada.”
They were known as ‘home children’ because many of them came from orphanages and charity homes in Britain. In the early years of the program, children as young as 5 were sent to live on Canadian farms. All were required to sign indenture contracts that terminated at legal age. Later legislation passed in 1925 banned child immigrants under age 14, but this was often ignored by the philanthropic organizations shipping boatloads of kids to Canada. Philanthropists like Dr. Barnardo cultivated support—both financial and moral—for their organizations at the highest levels of society, including the British aristocracy. So it wasn’t hard to get Canadian immigration officials to look the other way.
I worked with NDP MP Richard Cannings (South Okanagan–West Kootenay) to draft his speech to the House of Commons representing the federal NDP Party’s support for the motion. Since then, the other parties in the House have each had their opportunity to speak to the motion, and all did so with great respect for the legacy created by these generations of former child immigrants. It was wonderful to see the cross-partisan support from all political parties, though as Cannings told me on the phone, “this is what’s known in politics as a ‘motherhood’ issue, and they tend to pass fairly easily.”
Liberal MP Serge Cormier (Acadie–Bathurst) said in his speech to the motion that, “The thinking that led to the decision to uproot those children from their lives in England and send them to another country, thousands of kilometres away, seems absurd to us today. The story of their lives in Canada is happy for some and sad for others. Moreover, the background of a large number of them will forever remain unknown. Many were initially ashamed and, once they were adults, they decided to forget. They have never told their families how things went after they arrived in Canada.” He commended the efforts of BHC activists Perry Snow, Lori Oschefski and John Willoughby. Many others could be added to this list, including Peterborough octogenarian Ivy Sucee, recipient of the Queen’s Jubilee Medal for her efforts. Cormier provided some useful historical details proving that federal and provincial governments were partners in the child immigration scheme. “Initially, the children’s travel expenses were greatly subsidized in Canada. Nova Scotia provided $5 for young children and $10 for older ones. Ontario provided $6 and the federal government provided $2 for every child that the charitable organizations brought into the country.” Yet these children were also expected to pay back the cost of their passage from Britain, and were often solicited for donations by Barnardo’s out of their meagre earnings. “In fact, the apprenticeship agreements (were) brutal reminders that the children were not considered to be family members, but servants,” said Cormier.
For some of the MPs who spoke to the motion, the BHC story is personal. “The story of the British home children struck home with me through my uncle who never spoke about it,” said Conservative MP Phil McColeman (Brantford–Brant). “I found out about the British home children in 2008 when I first came to the House of Commons. A minister at the time, Greg Thompson, suggested that I should learn more about this issue. Through that research, I found the story of my uncle. With further research, I found the story of many others.” It’s a common refrain amongst BHC families—not finding out anything until one’s middle age or even later, and underscores the need for the topic to be taught in all Canadian public schools. McColeman’s uncle Ken Bickerton, who came to Canada, was separated from his brother, who was sent to Australia. One’s view of BHC history is often coloured by the experience their forebear had, whether positive or negative. Brutally hard labour in primitive conditions and all weathers, beatings and in some cases sexual abuse were not uncommon. Some of the lucky ones prospered in their new country, such as Joe Harwood and LV Rogers, two of the BHCs I profile in my book Laying the Children’s Ghosts to Rest. For McColeman, “they would never have had lives they had if they had not come through what many believed in that time period… to be something necessary to rescue them from poverty and life without hope in Great Britain…”
NDP MP Linda Duncan (Edmonton–Strathcona) said it was “remarkable how many members in the House of Commons are touched by this issue and who come from a line of children who were emigrated to this country, were not well treated, and should be recognized in history.” Duncan alluded to the House of Commons motion passed last year (February 16, 2017) apologizing to the BHC and their families for the poor treatment many of them received. She cited “motions tabled by former NDP MP Alex Atamanenko and the current member for South Okanagan–West Kootenay, both calling for a formal apology.” So far BHC families have had to be content with the House of Commons apology rather than an apology from a head of state representing the government, as was done previously in England (2010) and Australia (2009). As Duncan correctly pointed out, “Canadians were falsely led to believe these children were orphans who had been living on the streets of British cities, but in truth only 2 percent were. Most of the children came from intact families that had fallen on hard times. It was because of a lack of a social safety net that these families had no other choice than to surrender their children.” She noted that one receiving home for the children was less than a kilometre from the House of Commons, at 1153 Wellington Street West. “It is hoped that by designating this day Canadians will become better informed of the treatment of these children and this will contribute at least in a small way to the healing process for those home children still with us and their families.”
At the close of the sessions speaking to the motion, Guy Lauzon rose to thank his colleagues for their support. “Despite writing a vital chapter in the story of Canada, many Canadians have never heard a whisper of their stories. In my opinion, and that of thousands of Canadians right across this wonderful country, the Government of Canada should undertake whatever means it has at its disposal to help preserve and highlight this important part of our history. When we look at the suffering and strength of these wonderful people, we have to honour them by remembering them on one day each year.”
Judy Neville, whose brother Jim Brownell was the Ontario MPP responsible for shepherding that province’s British Home Child Day into legislation, was among the families who only learned late in life of family members who had been BHCs. Neville was a key part of that initiative through her membership in the East Ontario British Home Child Family group, which has established a seasonal BHC Museum at the Aultsville Station in Upper Canada Village. “Last evening watching the historic vote live from the House of Commons on my laptop, I was in tears,” Neville says. “My hope going forward is that we (Canadians) will collect, preserve and share the stories of these children and make sure this is taught in History classes across Canada.” In a previous statement she commended the pioneering efforts of Dave and Kay Lorente of Renfrew, Ontario, who established British Home Child Canada in 1991, well before the subject was generally known. The group initiated BHC reunions in every province in Canada. In 2010 they were invited to the official apology ceremony in London, England by former Prime Minister Gordon Brown.
“The newly established national British Home Child Day is one more important step in the right direction towards getting the BHC recognition of their immeasurable contribution to Canada, especially during its formative years,” writes Lori Oschefsky, who established the British Home Children Advocacy and Research Association. “This accomplishment firmly cements the BHC’s place in Canadian history. We as a nation cannot forget their collective contributions nor can we forget those who suffered greatly and those who lost their lives far too early.”
Best of all, September 28 is my birthday! I now have twice as many reasons to celebrate.
• British Home Child Canada http://canadianbritishhomechildren.weebly.com • British Home Children Advocacy and Research Association http://www.britishhomechildren.com • Laying the Children’s Ghosts to Rest. https://www.radiantpress.ca/news/2017/11/23/laying-the-childrens-ghosts-to-rest-mentioned-in-parliament • East Ontario British Home Child Family https://www.facebook.com/groups/446540058699295/