Sandra Joyce, a descendant of a British Home child, gives a presentation about discovering her father’s history during the Ontario Genealogical Society– Essex Chapter’s final meeting for the year at the Windsor Public Library on Ouellette Avenue on Monday, June 13, 2016.
By Shelbey Hernandez
A boy sits at a small, wooden table with no food before him. His stomach rumbles, having not eaten in days. He relies on his parents the most and they can’t do anything to help. So the only plausible solution is for him to be given up to the nearest orphanage.
Close to 150 years ago that may have been expected, but what was not was being shipped to Canada and Australia.
This was the fate for more than 100,000 British children between the ages of eight and 16 during the child emigration movement. According to The Canadian Encyclopedia, the movement started as a solution to a poverty problem that was too hard to ignore in Britain.
The plan was for younger children to be adopted by Canadian families, and for older children to be provided shelter so as long they helped on the farm of whichever family took them in. An agreement was made between Britain and Canada as each party benefited in some way. For Britain, it meant less children to care for and for Canada, it meant more workers.
These children were known as British Home Children. Sandra Joyce’s father was of one of them, and she told her story about discovering her father’s past during the Essex County Ontario Genealogical Society’s June 13 meeting.
Joyce started a petition asking for for a formal apology from the Canadian government for the British Home Children and their descendants in 2013, and three months ago she started another online. She said an apology is important because it will bring a lesser known historical event into the public eye.
“People need to know that growing up we did make mistakes but we now know about these mistakes and these things that happened and they will not happen again,” said Joyce.
Joyce wasn’t aware of her dad’s history until after he passed away. She toured Pier 21, knowing her parents had entered Canada there. After typing her father’s name into a database at the Pier, she discovered him, along with hundreds of other children who were sent to Canada destined for farm work. With extensive research and chance encounters, Joyce found out that her dad was a British home child. Questions of his behaviour were finally answered.
“When I found out unfortunately after he passed away, I understood why he was the way he was,” said Joyce. “He had a great deal of trouble showing emotion or connecting with people and it all stems back to that because he was put into care at nine years old and there, he had a type of family (at the orphanage)… Then he was sent over to Canada and he never had a family after the age of nine. He went through life without saying a word to anybody because he was ashamed of, or made to feel ashamed of, his background.”
A fair number of people attended the Genealogical Society’s final meeting of the year. Some were there purely out of interest in the history of British children, whereas others were descendants, looking for answers.
That was the case with Val DeGuire who attended the meeting with her husband. Together, they have been researching on their own to find out about her grandfather.
According to the Canadian Encyclopedia, most of the home children were abused physically, emotionally and mentally. In fact, it was rare for children to be adopted; instead, they were brought in as free labour in exchange for food and lodging.
That may have happened with Joyce’s father, but DeGuire’s grandfather was one of the luckier ones. DeGuire said she would have never known her grandfather grew up the way he did considering how lively and personable he was.
Her father was 12 when he was put into a household with an intention of being used for farm work. They still welcomed him with open arms and even allowed him to marry one of the daughters in the household. However, that didn’t change the fact that her grandfather’s life was altered drastically.
“My grandfather never talked about it,” said DeGuire. “I remember a story where when he was small, he remembered his parents then they died of influenza in England and then his sister who was five, six or seven years older than him tried to take care of him but she couldn’t do it. So she disappears and he never finds her again and … my mom and my aunt had asked him, ‘Did you ever try to look for your sister?’ and he said, ‘No and I don’t want to talk about it.’ He was heartbroken.”
Joyce and the DeGuire’s had extensive talks during and after the meeting. So with new information at their disposal of where to look next, the DeGuire’s hope to uncover even more.
Joyce has already begun talks with members of Parliament who have begun sending letters to the prime minister. So although the apology may not be just around the corner, she will continue to seek one out. She encourages anyone wishing to sign the online petition to do so soon since it will only be available until the end of July.
Shelbey Hernandez is an Essex-based journalist.