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More than 100,000 British children were sent to Canada by philanthropic organizations such as Dr. Barnardo’s — a practice that lasted for decades and later drew controversy and, finally, an apology.
By: Katie Daubs / thestar.com
Between 1869 and the late 1930s, more than 100,000 children were sent to Canada from Great Britain by philanthropic organizations like Dr. Barnardo’s.
Some were orphans, some were poor — many came from families who saw no other option. With overcrowding, disease and homelessness rampant in Industrial Revolution-era England, the idea was to send the children to the expansive land of Canada, where they could help on farms and have a chance at a good life.
Farmers paid a fee, and the children worked as indentured servants, until they came of age. Some were treated well, taken in as members of the family; many were seen as “little workers”; others were abused. The children were supposed to go to school, but this often depended on the farmer’s needs and harvest season.
Here are some key events in the history of the child emigration movement:
1862: An agnostic Thomas Barnardo, living in Ireland and still a teenager, is persuaded by his two older brothers to convert to the Plymouth Brethren, an evangelical Christian sect.
1866: Barnardo meets a missionary who is going to China and determines that he should also go immediately. He pursues a career in medicine.
1868: Barnardo is told he will not be considered a candidate for the China mission. Disappointed, he focuses his work on children in London’s East End and the mission he created there as part of his training. “In the unselfish ardour of youth he loved the worst best, with that passion which takes delight in unselfish services, and which is capable of deeds so romantic as to appear in the common verdict insane,” his wife wrote in 1907. “Into this sea of neglect our student of twenty-one threw himself to snatch the children from the jaws of death.”
1869: Social reformer Maria Rye, described as “the most successful of the priestesses of emigration,” in the Times, is the first person to bring British children to Canada as part of the emigration movement, settling in Niagara-on-the-Lake, refurbishing an old jail and calling it “Our Western Home.”
1870: Annie McPherson, a British social worker and reformer, sends entire families to Canada, after spending several years trying to better the situation for children and families in London’s East End. She would bring 100 boys on their own later that year.
1871: Barnardo chooses a dozen of the children in his organization to send to Canada with McPherson.
1874: Andrew Doyle, an Irish-born inspector with the British Poor Law Board, travels to Canada to see how the children are getting along.
1875: Doyle’s report praises the intentions of the child emigration programs, but condemns the methods. He doesn’t believe that enough time is spent vetting Canadian families. He finds cases of abused children, children not going to school, and discovers that children were represented “without distinction as the offspring of thieves and vagabonds just swept from the slums of our great cities.”
1882: Thomas Barnardo’s group sends its first children to Canada. Although dozens of organizations send children, Barnardo’s would send the most, and come to be the name most associated with the home child movement in Canada.
1891: The Custody of Children Act, passed in Britain, dictates that if a parent asks for his child back, and the government believes a parent has abandoned or deserted the child, the government does not have to produce the child. The law also states that if the child is returned to the parent, the parent may have to pay the costs incurred to other organizations in “bringing up the child.”
Lori Oschefski, founder of the British Home Children Advocacy & Research Association, says that with no mother’s allowance or welfare, workhouses and institutions like Barnardo’s were the only options, but as soon as a child was placed in one, the parents forfeited their rights. “If you wanted your child back, the onus was on you to prove you were a fit parent,” Oschefski says. “If you did prove that, you could be forced to repay the organization all the money they spent. The average parent couldn’t afford to do that.”
1891: After turbulent economic conditions in the 1870s and 1880s, public opinion in Canada has been turning against the home children. “A greater outrage never was perpetrated upon a community than that controlled by Dr. Barnardo, of London, whose great aim seems to be to gather up the waifs and offscourings of the slums of that great city and to dump as many of them upon this country as it can possibly receive,” reads an editorial in the Canadian Manufacturer.
1895: Home child George Green is found dead at the Owen Sound farm of Helen Findlay, “an educated and wealthy lady.” Findlay is charged with manslaughter, and Green’s case becomes well known throughout Canada. Neighbours tell the media that Findlay “frequently knocked the lad down and beat him with a stick.”
“She admitted that she beat him, but contended that it was only such chastisement as he deserved,” the newspaper reports read. The trial focuses on whether George’s death was caused by Findlay’s abuse or the child’s own hereditary conditions. The trial results in a hung jury, but Findlay later serves time in prison on common assault charges. “To the men who wrote the editorials, the politicians who made the speeches, and the unionists who looked for jobs, it was George Green and those who brought him to Canada who were the dark presence, leading to tragedy among the decent people of Grey County,” Kenneth Bagnell writes in The Little Immigrants.
1897: Following the publicity surrounding Green’s death, the Canadian government appoints an immigration agent in Liverpool to oversee the work of the children’s homes. In addition, facing pressure from child advocates such as John Joseph Kelso, the Juvenile Immigration Act is passed, which has more stringent requirements for record-keeping, screening and inspections.
1939: Child migration program ends.
2010: Then British prime minister Gordon Brown apologizes to home children: “We are sorry that instead of caring for them, this country turned its back. And we’re sorry that the voices of these children were not always heard, their cries for help not always heeded. And we’re sorry that it’s taken so long for this important day to come and for the full and unconditional apology that is justly deserved.”
Barnardo’s, which remains a children’s charity, responds, welcoming the apology: “We were one of many agencies involved in child migration in the last century, a policy which was once mainstream child-care practice. We express our deepest sympathy for anyone who suffered.”
Sources: The Little Immigrants by Kenneth Bagnell; British Home Child Advocacy & Research Association; Memoirs of the Late Dr. Barnardo by Louise Elmsie Barnardo; Dictionary of Canadian Biography.