Canada's home children


Sheryl Salloum
Focus on Adoption magazine

For a period in this country’s history (1868 to 1925), more than 80,000 children from British orphanages were transported via steamship to Canada. They were settled with rural farming families in Eastern Canada. The younger ones, three to five years, were often adopted and grew up loved and happy. Many of the older children, ranging in ages from four to 17, were treated as chattel. The conditions they endured were harsher than those from which they had been "rescued" in the slums of Britain’s industrialized cities.

Forced to work from dawn to dusk doing farm chores with which they were unfamiliar was bad enough, but these children were often abused in other ways. Some were not given proper clothing; testimonials indicate that some had to walk barefoot in winter weather. Their accomodations were often cramped quarters in un-insulated attics, barns, or other unsuitable parts of the homestead; one child not only slept with the dog, but they were fed together. Starved for love and proper nutrition, many youngsters were also whipped, beaten, and forced to endure other tortures. For example, one boy was often poked with a pitchfork. Many were deprived of an education, and others were sexually molested. Some ran away or "disappeared," a few committed suicide, and others died from their abuses.

In the mid-1800s the living conditions in Britain’s cities were horrific. Diseases such as cholera and typhoid were rampant, destitution and starvation were common, and the average life span was twenty years. Thousands of children were abandoned or orphaned. Left to fend for themselves, they begged, stole, worked at jobs such as making matchsticks, and survived as best they could. In the 1860s, well-intentioned individuals began setting up "homes" for such youngsters; shortly thereafter the first group of "home children" was sent to Canada. The British thought that these children would prosper by learning how to farm and that the rigorous work would build character. Canadians viewed the children as a cheap and much-needed source of labour.

No one seemed concerned with the emotional and psychological well-being of the young people. Indeed, child immigrants were described in such derogatory terms as "waifs," "street arabs," "riffraff," offscourings," and "guttersnipes." The terms of their indenture were contained in contracts that farmers signed but often ignored. According to these terms, the children were to be housed, fed, and clothed until age 15. Afterward, their clothes were not to be provided but a wage was to be paid them until they were 18. Many never received their wages, or had heavy deductions made for food and clothing. The children were to be schooled as work permitted, but many never saw a classroom. Children who were frail or inept with the work could be returned to "the home." Many spent their childhood years moving from one farm to another.

The reason that such ill-treatment was permitted was that no one except, maybe, a few neighbours, were aware of the conditions under which the "home children" existed. Inspections by the institutions were few and far between; when an inspector did show up, interviews tended to take place around the kitchen table where the intimidated youngsters were afraid to speak out.

Canada’s "home children" have now passed away or are aged. Happily, most were able to find love and happiness in families they formed with their spouses. A few achieved a level of renown. One example is BC’s former MLA Robert Strachen; another is John Seeley, one of Canada’s most noted sociologists. None will ever be able to forget the pain and anguish of their childhood years. Nor should Canadians overlook this bleak part of our history: homeless and vulnerable children should never again be treated so abysmally by this country’s citizens.

Source: The Little Immigrants: The Orphans Who Came to Canada, by Kenneth Bagnall, Macmillan of Canada, 1980.