Keeping alive the story of British Home Children
Dan Oatman of the British Home Child Advocacy and Research Association (BHCARA) was a guest speaker in Petrolia recently. Oatman is a resident of Strathroy and the descendant of a British Home Child. John Phair/Special to The Topic
They were known as the Home Children, and while most Canadians know little about them, their stories and experiences represent one of the darkest corners of Canadian social history.
Between 1869 and 1939 more than 100,000 British children, some as young as two, were sent to Canada under child migrant schemes.
In England, factory jobs created as a result of the Industrial Revolution caused a massive migration of workers from the British countryside into its major cities. The cities weren’t prepared for the influx, which led to overcrowding, poverty and unsanitary living conditions. As a result, thousands of children from low-income families lived and died on Britain’s squalid city streets.
But a number of British philanthropists and social reformers pioneered what they thought was a perfect solution: the Home Child Movement.
With the support of the British and Canadian governments they developed a scheme to remove these children from the impoverishment streets of Victorian England and send them to pristine Canada.
The Canadian government openly welcomed the children because their labour was cheap and there was a need for farm and domestic workers.
“It was a movement born of very good intentions,” said Dan Oatman of the British Home Child Advocacy and Research Association (BHCARA), adding the initial concept was to get the children to Canada where it was assumed they could acquire a better life.
“In some cases that happened, but in many instances it did not; some children were sent to bad homes, were abused badly and were not treated well at all.”
Oatman added that, in retrospect, it did not reflect well on Canada as a country that was supposed to be offering the children a better life.
Oatman, a resident of Strathroy and a Home Child descendent, was speaking at the Petrolia library as part of a series presentations organized by Lambton County’s Cultural Services Division.
He said the children become known as Home Children because they were first assembled in dormitory homes in England and were then sent to receiving homes when they arrived in Canada.
“There were more than 40 agencies sending children from the British Isles to Canada,” said Oatman, adding that among them were the McPherson, Rye, Fegan, Quarriers – and the Barnardo Home, which became the largest and best known.
He added that the Catholic Emigration Society, Salvation Army and Church of England were also participants.
Oatman said a common misconception is that the children were all orphans. In most cases they were not. With thousands of British families living in squalid conditions and in dire financial straits, many had no choice but to give up their kids to these organizations, hoping they would have a better life in Canada.
It’s estimated that less than two per cent of the Home Children were orphans.
“Some of these children were sent to Canada without parental consent and when the parents went to get them they wouldn’t tell them where they were,” he said.
“These children were cut off from their families and often were separated from their siblings when they arrived here; many of them never saw one another again.”
After arriving at the receiving homes in Canada the children were distributed to farms across Canada from the Maritimes to the Canadian West, where they were put to work as farm labourers or domestic workers. They were indentured to the age of 18.
“They earned a very small amount of money for their work and were given that only when their indenture was up,” said Oatman.
“They all faced an uncertain future and were often confined to the hard life of menial work on Canadian farms.”
Oatman noted that, based on newspaper accounts and historical documents, the Canadian government and the Home Children agencies did little to follow up on the children’s living conditions and showed little apparent concern for their welfare.
Rather, the main public concern was whether the Home Children would infect Canada with their “inferior genetics” and diseases.
“They were stigmatized and were often treated like second-class citizens,” said Oatman, adding the Home Children were often told by their adopted families to make themselves scarce when company visited.
“If you were a Home Child you were essentially nobody.”
He added that many of the Home Children not only suffered from neglect, they were cut off from their families and were lonely, noting that until recent years, they were not allowed access to records that would tell them who or where their parents were.
A number of Home Children died from general neglect and poor nutrition, said Oatman.
The psychological stress also caused a number to commit suicide, he added.
Oatman said it’s a tribute to their own strength and resiliency that most overcame their ordeals and went on to live out their lives in Canada, raise families, run farms or have successful careers in industry.
Many also served their adopted country. Thousands of Home Boys enlisted in both world wars and served with distinction.
Oatman said it was interesting to note that most Home Children never complained or, indeed, ever talked about their experiences. The stigmatization they suffered in Canada obviously caused most of them to remain silent their entire lives about their ordeal, sharing little even with their own families.
Oatman said today there are an estimated four million Canadians, or 10 per cent of the Canadian population, descended from a British Home Child, and many aren’t aware of their ancestor.
“It’s a good chance that you or someone in your family tree is a descended from a Home Child,” he said.
Oatman is writing a book about the lives of his maternal grandmother and aunt, who were both Home Children.