As a child, Sandra Joyce always knew that she was of Scottish descent.
“My dad told me he came to Canada as a teenager, working on farms at first,” she says. “He said his mother passed away, so that’s the reason why he left.”
It would be years before Joyce learned the true story of how her dad, who worked at Seton House in Toronto helping homeless men, made his way to Canada in 1925 as a 15-year-old.
Robert Joyce was one of more than 100,000 children from the British Isles brought here over several decades beginning in the late 19th century, a forced exodus of humanity known today as the British Home Children.
The unaccompanied minors, some orphaned, many more from impoverished families, were brought over to work as farm labourers or domestic servants. While the bulk stayed in Ontario and Quebec, many were dispersed across the country and left in the care of complete strangers.
“I never knew any of my dad’s story growing up,” says Joyce on Friday from her home in Toronto. “He never spoke about it, because of the whole shame factor.”
Today, Joyce is speaking about the story of her father and the British Home Child era through books and frequent stops in cities across the country. On Monday, May 2, she’ll be the guest speaker at an event hosted by the Canadian Federation of University Women-Calgary (cfuwcalgary.ca); she’ll also be at the Calgary Public Library’s Signal Hill branch at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, May 3.
If you had told Joyce a decade ago that in 2016, she would be one of the country’s leading voices on the issue, she wouldn’t have believed it.
“I was writing my first book on my own family experience,” says Joyce, who’ll also be presenting at two Calgary schools during her visit. “I never would have known that it would become such a passion.”
It’s not difficult to understand why such a little known part of our nation’s history would captivate someone with both a professional — Joyce studied journalism at Ryerson University — and personal interest.
According to Library and Archives Canada, between 1869 and the late 1930s, more than 100,000 under-age migrants were sent to Canada from the British Isles. Many believed they were giving the children a chance at a better life.
However, there was little followup done on the young newcomers after they were placed in homes and farms across the country.
According to Joyce, who says the migration in fact continued well into the 1940s, more than 10 per cent of Canadians descend from the British Home Children.
Because of the stigma associated with being an orphan from another country, though, many people today still don’t know their origins.
During the two world wars, thousands of those transplants fought for Canada. Some of it was no doubt because of loyalty to their adopted country. In many cases, though, it was a chance to once again lay eyes on their place of birth.
“It was the only way they could get a free passage home,” says Joyce, “to see if they could find their families.”
In recent years, there has been some recognition of this part of Canada’s history, one that contains both stories of success and tragic tales of abuse.
Both England and Australia, one of the countries where children were sent, offered formal apologies; while Canada declared 2010 the Year of the Home Child and brought out a commemorative stamp, the previous Tory government refused to go that route, saying it couldn’t apologize for, according to then immigration minister Jason Kenney, “everything that’s ever been unfortunate or (a) tragic event in our history.”
“It wasn’t ‘a’ tragic event,” says Joyce. “This was a systematic immigration of children for cheap labour, over a period of 70 years.”
For her part, Joyce has no plans to stop speaking out. Through the international organization British Home Child Group International (www.britishhomechild.com), she and fellow advocates assist people in researching their possible British Home Child roots.
She’ll also continue to travel across the country sharing her own story, one she says has helped her to understand her father and enrich her life as a proud descendent of a British Home Child.
“My father was very distant — he didn’t grow up in a family so never learned how to connect emotionally,” she says. “Knowing why brought healing to me and my family. I now try to help other families find this healing, this sense of belonging.
“And I also now know why he chose to work at a homeless shelter — he understood what those men were going through.”