Book tells story of Home Children

Nearly 100,000 English children sent to Canada as labourers

By Naoibh O'Connor, Vancouver Courier

December 2, 2009 /

A framed sepia-toned photograph of a handsome, youthful Charlie Harvey sits on a bookshelf in Beryl Young's Kitsilano home.

Dressed in a Royal Northwest Mounted Police uniform, Harvey, Young's father, is 22 in the shot.

He died 48 years ago, but his life story is the subject of a book Young wrote called Charlie: A Home Child's Life in Canada, published by Key Porter books last August.

Harvey was one of nearly 100,000 so-called Home Children who were sent to Canada from England as indentured labourers between 1870 and 1938. Roughly 7,000 others were sent to Australia in later years. Some were abused and forced to work in terrible conditions, despite promises of a better life. It's estimated there are four million descendants of these children in Canada.

Harvey was 13 when his father died of pneumonia, forcing his mother to break up the family of seven children.

The teenager ended up in London at Leopold House, a home for destitute children founded by Dr. Thomas Barnardo. Just before turning 14, he was shipped to Canada with 216 other Barnardo children. Harvey worked as a farm labourer at two farms in Ontario until his 18th birthday--in the first case he was treated badly, but he had better luck on the second farm.

He went on to fight in the First World War and later joined the Royal Northwest Mounted Police, which soon became the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Through his life, he lived in various places across the country from Halifax to Victoria.

But he kept quiet about his past as a Home Child. Young suspects he was ashamed of his background and the fact he only finished Grade 8. He was also of a generation that didn't talk much about their personal histories.

Young, the author of the best-selling young adult novel Wishing Star Summer, wasn't sure she had the right to expose her father's background in a book. Both parents died before she began considering it.

"When I decided I wanted to write his story, I had to really think hard about it and I talked to my brother. We decided I could write the story because we're really proud of our dad," she said. "I think he was really brave, along with those other children, to come to Canada and make his way in Canada. He served in the war and he was courageous."

The book, which chronicles Harvey's journey from age 13 to retirement, is geared towards students from 10 to 13, but it's also captured interest from adults with relatives who were Home Children or who suspect they had relatives in that situation.

Young isn't sure how many Vancouverites are descendants of Home Children because of the shame associated with being one.

"They say 12 per cent of Canadians are descendants and you see, these people didn't talk about it. Many people won't know, but some of them have an idea since many people are tracking down their family history," she said. "I really wanted to honour the journeys of those 100,000 children because I think it's a largely unknown part of our history and I wanted to recognize their contribution to Canada. They made wonderful citizens."

Home Children hit the news headlines in recent weeks after the Australian government apologized to child migrants in that country and the British government announced plans to do so in the new year. There's a call for Prime Minister Stephen Harper to do the same.

Young believes it's more important for the Canadian government to recognize the group of children and their contribution to this country. "I feel Canadians are more quietly sad. They're not angry," she said.

A private members bill is being introduced in the House of Commons Dec. 7, to declare 2010 the year of the British Home Child. A commemorative stamp is being issued in October 2010.


Pound Pup Legacy