Forgiving does not erase the bitter past. A healed memory is not a deleted memory. Instead, forgiving what we cannot forget creates a new way to remember. We change the memory of our past into a hope for our future. —Lewis B. Smedes
2019 marks the 150th anniversary of the first small group of British Home Children arriving in Canada with English social reformer Maria Rye. (More on this story to come.) So it’s worth thinking for a moment: imagine if their stories had been lost forever. They very nearly were. Now imagine that we lost other pivotal stories in our history: the Suffragettes’ campaigns for women’s vote, or the civil rights movement in the ’60s. Imagine what Canadian history would be if we left out entirely the Riel Rebellion, 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. It happens daily in the corporate-owned media, which recasts events such as police shootings of black Americans in a light favourable to authority and ignores record-breaking global protests. 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.
Now imagine that 100,000 people, whose descendants number up to four million in Canada today, were erased from this revised 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: scratching together a life on the streets of Birmingham, Manchester, 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. “The ‘mob,’ the ‘dangerous classes,’ or the ‘residuum’ were terms variously applied to those who suffered the poverty and uncertainty of an economic order unable to provide them with permanent work,” writes historian Roy Parker in Uprooted: The Shipment of Poor Children to Canada, 1867–1917.
Obviously not all of the 19th century British elite shared this view. Many aristocrats such as Lord Shaftesbury, William Booth and the Rowntree family were themselves reformers. Some of them funded the building of day schools and orphanages operated by philanthropists such as Annie Macpherson and Dr. Barnardo. But with the industrial revolution displacing more workers than it could employ, even these relief efforts were soon overrun. Remember: this is the era before social programs and welfare. The law of the 19th century capitalist jungle was: You either do well or you die. And if you don’t do well, it’s your own fault—you deserve your fate. Sadly, we’re hearing this antisocial litany in 21st century political rhetoric, whether it’s regarding immigration or the growing poverty gap in Western nations.
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 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.
Lori Oschefsky, founder of British Home Child Advocacy and Research Association (BHCARA), has been frank about past attempts to whitewash the child immigration movement. “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. 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.
Once they arrived in Canada, the lives of these children offered them little security, uprooting them frequently from one farm to another. “Hardly any of the people had stayed in one place until they were 18,” writes Parker. “Unhappiness, the end of a short-term engagement, being considered ‘unsatisfactory’, running away or being removed because of ill-treatment, all contributed to this history of unsettlement. Indeed, a pattern of ‘moving around’ and restlessness, particularly among the boys, was liable to continue into adult life… Eighteen percent… described harsh physical treatment (boys and girls in equal proportion) and a fifth of the women… said, or strongly implied, that they had been sexually abused by some man in the families to which they were sent.” The descendants of these families are still dealing with this legacy a century later. It’s arguable that the Home Child legacy of constant movement across the landscape has become a formative aspect of Canadian character.
“Together with a minority of upbeat accounts,” notes Parker in Uprooted, “there were those that were deeply sad and where that sadness and distress had persisted through to retirement and beyond. Those who wrote about such distress tended to do so in some detail. Typically, they emphasized their feelings of loneliness, of being unloved, of being stigmatized as a ‘home child’ and of feeling a deep sense of psychological damage. Here are some illustrative extracts: ‘I was sure I would die of loneliness.’ ‘I was given to understand that an orphan was the lowest type of person on earth… and the insults I had to take… have always stayed with me.’ ‘My background of life has given me a restless nature. As I grew up there was always the question in my mind. Why, for what reason did our family have to be broken up?’”
In October 2018 the Scottish government was in phase three of its Child Abuse Inquiry, including a forensic historical examination of the abuse of children held in care. In 2010, successful Scottish businessman David Whelan published his memoir No More Silence, relating the abuse he suffered as a ward of Quarriers childcare organization. As phase three of the inquiry opened, Alice Harper, chief executive of Quarriers, said: “Quarriers repeats its unreserved apology to survivors of abuse while in our care,” an apology first offered on May 31, 2017. Naturally, many victims’ families were not satisfied by apology alone. An article in The Herald reported Janine Rennie, Chief Executive of survivors’ support charity Wellbeing Scotland, as saying: “Some people walked out of the hearings. A lot of us feel frustrated that the inquiry seems set to focus on institutional failures. Those are blindingly obvious, what victims want is justice and accountability for individual abusers.” Barnardo’s during the hearings refused to admit abuse actually took place, angering some in attendance.
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. In recent decades there have been many fine books and documentaries—and one feature film, Oranges and Sunshine—made to redress this gap. It’s a reminder that capitalism’s victims can be of any colour or ethnicity. An estimated 8–10 percent of Canadians are descended from these children.
We can be thankful that, due to the dedicated efforts of people like Dave and Kay Lorente, Ivy Sucee, Perry Snow, Judy Neville, Lori Oshefsky, and many others over the years, awareness of Canada’s British Home Child history is emerging from the shadows. We can be especially thankful to far-sighted people like Phyllis Harrison, who in the late 1970s placed ads in Canadian newspapers asking British Home Children to send her their stories. These firsthand accounts are now priceless historical documents, since so many of these people have passed on. In addition we can be grateful to authors who devoted considerable time to researching and writing about them during the ‘wilderness period’ in the early 1980s when few Canadians had even heard of British Home Children: Joy Parr, Kenneth Bagnell, and Gail Corbett. Thankfully that list of authors has since grown to encompass a whole new category of Canadian history.
And we can be thankful to those politicians who took up the cause of social justice in the face of the monumental indifference of various Canadian governments: NDP MP Alex Atamanenko, NDP MP Richard Cannings, Bloc Québécois MP Luc Thériault—all of whom championed Parliamentary motions for apology. Although the Canadian Government itself has yet to formally apologize, Thériault’s motion for a House of Commons apology passed unanimously on February 15, 2017. I was proud to have co-authored Cannings’ speech to the House in favour of the motion. This was quickly followed on February 7, 2018 by the successful motion posed by Conservative MP Guy Lauzon for a national British Home Child day on September 28. These MPs and all those who supported them deserve our thanks.
Tom Isherwood, a child migrant brought to Canada at the age of 8 with Fairbridge Farm Schools, sums it up poignantly: “Never should defenseless, lonely, loveless children be treated in such a way anywhere in the world.” Let’s hope our leaders learn something from this sad chapter of history.
Sean Arthur Joyce, the descendant of British Home Child Cyril William Joyce, is the author of Laying the Children’s Ghosts to Rest: Canada’s Home Children in the West (Radiant Press). He is the author of 7 books including poetry, Western Canadian history and a novel. Joyce will host a celebration of British Home Child Day at the Camp Café in Silverton, BC on Friday, September 27, 2:30 pm, with all BHC descendants welcome. To mark the 150th anniversary of the first British Home Children arriving in Canada, the British Home Children Advocacy and Research Association is sponsoring light-up events across Canada. For a full list of events visit: https://www.britishhomechildren.com
LINKS: David Whelan, No More Silence: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/9318460-no-more-silence
‘Unreserved’ apologies over abuse fail to satisfy victims, Stephen Naysmith, The Herald, May 31, 2017: https://www.heraldscotland.com/news/15320364.unreserved-apologies-over-abuse-fail-to-satisfy-victims/
Laying the Children’s Ghosts to Rest: Canada’s Home Children in the West, by Sean Arthur Joyce, Radiant Press: https://www.radiantpress.ca/shop/laying-the-childrens-ghosts-to-rest-canadas-home-children-in-the-west