Goshen Canada’s Children

The Chronicle Hearald.ca

The Nova Scotian

Canada’s children of the empire
Thousands of British home children sent to Canada were treated like servants
By HEATHER LASKEY
Sun. Jan 3 – 2010

Save the Child and Help the Empire!

Dr. Thomas Barnardo

An item from the Halifax Evening Reporter, Monday, April 20, 1874:

The English Children.

Mrs. Birt, with nearly eighty sturdy little boys and girls, arrived in the “Nova Scotian” this morning, the children all aged from 4 to 16. Colonel Laurie and Dr. Clay met Mrs. Birt, and at once sent off the children to the lodgings provided for them. They will be distributed in a few days.

THOSE LITTLE boys and girls were back in the news in November when Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced that he would not be making an apology about Canada’s home children. The Mrs. Birt and Colonel Laurie mentioned in the Evening Reporter article were among the earliest advocates and organizers of a controversial movement which was to see nearly 100,000 children shipped to Canada from Britain between 1868 and 1930.

Over the years, the majority were sent to Ontario and the Prairies by Dr. Barnardo’s vast ‘child rescue’ organization in London, where it still exists. Here in the Maritimes, by the end of the 19th century, the Birmingham-based Middlemore Homes had established a virtual monopoly, distributing a total of 5,109 children by 1928 from their centre in Fairview.

Who were those boys and girls and why were they sent — or ‘exported’? And who would ‘consume’ the young cargo?

In Victorian Britain, uncurbed, unregulated massive industrialization, accompanied by an exponential increase of urban populations with minimal, if any, earnings, and crowded into filthy slums, had created social havoc. At a time when there was no help for widows, unwed mothers, sick or disabled parents, there were thousands of destitute, abandoned, orphaned or neglected children, many confined to the dreaded workhouses (think Oliver Twist) with little hope of anything better.

Enter the Victorian evangelists: appalled at the children’s lack of religious training and their physical condition, and aware of the need for labour in the thinly populated, unpolluted spaces of Canada, they saw a way to save both bodies and souls by sending them over the Atlantic to be indentured to God-fearing farmers. Arguing that the children’s removal would improve their prospects and well-being, while siphoning off excess population and removing the threat of potential criminality and revolution, they pointed to the savings on local taxes for workhouses. In Canada, until the 1930s depression effectively ended the movement, there were always at least seven applications for every child, despite Toronto newspapers cruelly describing the children as “the sweepings of the gutter” (and worse), and the federal government paid $2 per head towards the agencies’ costs.

In the late 1970s I interviewed over 30 survivors in Nova Scotia and Ontario. One was a lovely old gentleman, James Golding, surrounded by a loving family here in Sonora, on the Eastern Shore. His father had died in the Boer War and he arrived aged five.

“They were poor people, fishermen. They were good to me, treated me as their own child . . . Seventy-five years ago I stepped through that door and I’m here yet. I’ve had a good life, but there is a melancholy when you think your own country didn’t want you.”

Mr. Golding’s older brother was more typical. Placed in a family with six other children, he was “put out after four years.” Then, with a farmer in Stewiacke, “he was treated terrible. He beat him with whips and said he was only a charity boy.”

For most of the children there was a desperate loneliness, the feeling of being abandoned to the care of uncaring people for whom the child’s only value, whatever their age, was their labour.

Amy Hodgkins, five, was sent to a farm near Baddeck in 1925. “They (the neighbours) all knew about her beating me but they wouldn’t open their mouths . . . And when the inspectors came, I wouldn’t tell them. I was too scared, I thought she’d really pound me after they’d left . . . All I can remember is all the poundings I got for nothing . . . I had the yard work, the field work . . . scrub floors, everything.”

Another woman, placed in a family near Port Morien with her brother: “They were poor people themselves. They just wanted us to work . . . We’d eat at the same table, but were given different food.”

“It was always work, work, work,” said a woman brought up in Hampton and Hoyt’s Station. “I was never allowed to go out with the other kids and to play. They weren’t kind. Just work, slave.” Like many of the children often kept out of school, she remembered weeping as she cut potatoes in the cellar — “I’d be so lonesome.”

Relentless heavy labour, beatings, and that terrible loneliness were constant themes. One woman told me, “Sometimes I was wishing I wouldn’t live.” And for many of the girls, there was also sexual abuse. One old lady, sent to New Brunswick as an eight-year-old, described having to work like a man. Her brother on another farm was treated “as a little slave; he fractured his skull falling off a hay wagon,” and her sister was put in an “awful home.” She herself was raped by one of the family.

As early as 1875 a visiting British Poor Law official reported on the difference between the agencies’ propaganda and the reality. Fifty years later, nothing had changed. Charlotte Whitton, the Canadian feminist, spoke of their “cheap labour that approaches perilously near a form of slavery.”

Meanwhile in the U.K., living conditions and wages improved over the decades, along with public health infrastructure and the introduction of widows’ pensions. Since 1870 there had been free compulsory education up to 14.

Their infrequent attendance in Canadian schools was the reason the British government gave in 1925 to halt the emigration of school-age children. Older boys, however, like the late Charles Davenport of Cole Harbour, continued to be sent through organizations such as the Dakeyne Street Lads Club — the name visible for years on the agency’s barn roof in Falmouth. Earlier, the Colonel Laurie mentioned in that 1874 newspaper article operated a similar scheme on his estate — the site now of the Oakfield Golf Club.

Many of the men I heard about, or met, like Mr. Davenport, fought in both world wars. Thirty years ago, it was calculated that over one million Canadians are descended from the children brought over by schemes unique to the British Empire. There are more of you now.

Heather Laskey is a freelance writer who lives in Halifax. She is the author of Night Voices: Heard in the Shadow of Hitler and Stalin.