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.
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.