Author finds mystery and inspiration in her father’s past

Waterloo Region Record KITCHENER — How much do we really know about our parents’ past?

Oct 27, 2012 Toronto author Sandra Joyce’s own revelation came with some rather shocking truths, about the hurt her father suffered as a British home child. He was separated from everything he knew, sent to Canada from his native Scotland and then torn from his younger brother upon their arrival here.

Sadly, she also learned that his story was not unique, leading Joyce to write The Street Arab: the Story of a British Home Child (Welldone Publishing 2011). On Monday, Oct. 29, Joyce will speak at Waterloo Region Museum, part of the museum’s speaker series.

“I had no idea he had been a home child until he passed away,” said Joyce in an interview from her Toronto home. “I thought he came to Canada as an adult.”

The Street Arab reference in the title was a derogatory term used to describe street children and often ascribed to British home children, of which there were an estimated 100,000 sent to Canada from more than 50 orphanages and other child care agencies throughout Britain.

The children ranged in age from four to 15 and were required to work as indentured farm labourers or domestic servants until they were 18. Joyce said the children were often ill treated because at the time, the belief was they were born into lower classes and were therefore genetically limited, a lesser species.

Her father, Robert Joyce, was sent to Canada through Quarrier’s Homes in 1925, after his mother died and his father could not care for him, his younger brother or sister. The sister ran away from the home but the boys were bundled off to Canada when Robert was 15 and his brother 12. Immediately they were separated, sent to different farms and at some point, the younger brother was shipped off to Western Canada. Eventually the two lost touch.

Joyce’s unusual and often disturbing emotional journal into her father’s story began after visiting the Canadian Museum of Immigration, at Pier 21, in Halifax, N.S.

“You can enter someone’s name to see if they are on a passenger list and up popped his name,” she said. “I thought, ‘what is this?’ ”

The list also provided two important pieces of information necessary for immigrants to enter Canada at the time.

“They were not mentally defective and didn’t have TB (tuberculosis),” she added.

Finding her father’s name and the fact he was only 15 at the time set her to wondering if everything she thought she knew about him was wrong, or at the very least, what little he had told her was misleading.

Her subsequent research led her into archives and to Scotland three times.

“Every time I went, the story got deeper and deeper,” she said. “I found out they were in a poor house before being put into an orphanage.”

As Joyce began unfolding her father’s past, she also began to understand how he became the man he was.

“There were peculiarities in his character,” she said, noting he would withdraw when faced with conflict. “He didn’t know how to handle adult relationships.”

The home children, she learned, were “all made to feel bad about the fact they were in a home.” Consequently, once they grew into adulthood, they seemed eager to push their past into the background, their humiliation forgotten.

Despite this awful treatment, Joyce said her father never blamed his adopted country. “He was a very proud Canadian.” In fact, her father did a variety of jobs, including hospital orderly and milk man, eventually working in a Toronto homeless shelter, where he seemed to thrive.

“It was coming full circle for him,” she said. “He felt an affinity for them (the homeless).”

As she researched her father’s past, Joyce also realized there were many similar tales of thousands of other home children. She decided to write his story as a work of fiction. This medium gave her more flexibility she said, and also, because she discovered all this information after his death, Joyce was never able to verify exact details.

Writing the story also ignited a maternal instinct.

“It’s a funny feeling … like a mother toward children,” she said. “When I was writing it, it was almost as if he became my son. I felt like I had a responsibility (to tell the story.)”

The stories of child immigration to Canada have too long been buried in the shadows, she said. “Whenever anything bad happened in the community, they blamed the (home) children. It was quite the revelation.”