2010 is Year of the British Home Child in Canada but Some Descendants Want More from Ottawa

“British immigrant children from Dr. Bernardo’s Homes at landing stage, Saint John, N.B.”, n.d., photo by Isaac Erb, Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN no. 3193366. Copy of an official work published by the Government of Canada, not produced in affiliation with, or with the endorsement of the Government of Canada

The Government of Canada has declared 2010 to be the Year of the British Home Child.  Earlier this month, Canada Post released a commemorative stamp to honour this recognition.

The stamp, designed by Debbie Adams of Adams+Associates Design Consultants, contains three images: the SS Sardinian, on which home children migrated from Britain to Canada; a photograph of a home child engaged in farm labour; a portrait of a newly-arrived boy passing through Halifax en route to Hamilton.  The young boy, looking directly at the camera and whose image is enclosed by a metal frame, emerges as the main focus of the stamp.  Such a visual device is intentional, as Adams notes that the frame represents the “relationships” home children developed in Canada: “It shows that someone cared enough about this child to preserve and display his image.”

Beginning in the 1860s and continuing well into the twentieth century, at least 80 000 poor and orphaned British children arrived in Canada at the request of the Federal Government.  Thousands more migrated to other commonwealth countries, such as Australia and New Zealand. British churches and charities directed this exodus as one means to alleviate the “poor problem” in Britain’s growing industrial cities.  A majority of these young Canadian immigrants ended up on farms, where they often laboured long hours under grueling conditions.  Other home children fulfilled the growing Canadian middle class’s desire for domestic servants, while the lucky few became accepted as adopted children. The most unfortunate children endured physical and mental abuse.

In late 2009, Phil McColeman, Conservative MP for Brant whose uncle was a home child, successfully pushed through a private members’ motion that declared 2010 Year of the British Home Child. The motion unanimously passed in the House of Commons.

Yet some home-child descendants are not satisfied by the declaration.  Rather, they are pressuring Ottawa to provide money to enable the approximately four million descendants of home children to connect with long-lost family across the globe.  John Willoughby, a Prince Edward Islander with British home-child lineage who leads the Canadian Centre for Home Children, is spearheading the movement.  The British and Australian governments have issued formal apologies for the abuses home children faced; indeed, Britain has promised to provide millions of dollars to assist descendants in their genealogical searches.

In 1999, the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada erected this commemorative plaque outside a former receiving home for British home children in Stratford, Ontario. Photo by Alan L. Brown

The Government of Canada, in contrast, has neither issued a formal apology nor offered money to descendants.  Previous posts on ActiveHistory.ca have noted the benefits and problems of official government apologies. Strong networks of descendants of British home children have partnerships with archives like Library and Archives Canada (LAC) and use censes, immigration records, and other archival holdings to trace their lineages in the hopes of reuniting with lost family.  Home-child descendants attended an invitation-only event at LAC on September 9th, where a new film on the experiences of British home children was unveiled. Some hope the 2010 declaration and commemorative stamp will signal a beginning of restitution.

6 thoughts on “2010 is Year of the British Home Child in Canada but Some Descendants Want More from Ottawa

  1. Lila George

    Since receiving my Gran’s (Eliza Preston, born circa 1894)records from Barnardo’s in 2001, my Mom (Edith Conklin, now 80 years old and the only surviving child of Eliza) and I (Lila George 60 years old) have exhausted our monetary resources researching our family in England. We have even traveled to England thinking maybe we could get more information on our family. We have tried in vain on our own to discover our roots.
    Unfortunately my Gran died in 1981, never knowing her own birthday, never seeing her mother again or know of any family. At this point , the possibility exists that three generations will never know their roots, that my friend is a travesty!!!!!!

    Lila George, proud granddaughter of Eliza Preston

  2. Jay Young Post author

    Dear Lila,

    Thank you for reading and commenting on your personal family history as it relates to British home children.

    It certainly is unfortunate that your grandmother never saw her family once she migrated to Canada. I wish you luck in your continued search to uncover your family history.

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  4. Linda Lunardi

    Jay, just came across your article! I am with a new endeavour called OPERATION FIND OUR FAMILIES – we do searches FOR FREE for Home Children and their descendants in Canada. I was very saddened to read Lila George’s comments. If you could pass on my email address to her, we would be very pleased, indeed, to offer our services; we have volunteer genealogists in the UK hard at work. I work with John Willoughby here on Prince Edward Island. We attended the reception held at the Library & Archives Canada, in Ottawa, on 9 September 2010. The commemorative stamp issued by Canada Post is very nice – too bad Home Children descendants in Canada don’t have an address for family in the UK to use the stamp to send a letter!! Thank you for the article, Jay, kind regards, Linda L.

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