Long-overdue apology to British Home Children

Quilt created for The Year of the British Home Child (2010), on display at the Library in Bradford, back in 2012. A new Sesquicentennial Quilt will be unveiled in Newmarket on April 1. Miriam King/Bradford Times/Postmedia Network

Quilt created for The Year of the British Home Child (2010), on display at the Library in Bradford, back in 2012. A new Sesquicentennial Quilt will be unveiled in Newmarket on April 1. Miriam King/Bradford Times/Postmedia Network

Ottawa - It was a moment long-awaited by British Home Children and their descendants.

On February 16, the Canadian House of Commons passed a motion, formally apologizing to the children uprooted through the long-standing migration program.

From 1869 to the end of the 1940s, 55 agencies in Great Britain sent more than 100,000 children to Canada, to work as indentured farm workers and domestics. Uprooted from their mother country, separated from surviving family members, most of the children were used as a supply of cheap labour – and many suffered abuse, stigma and neglect.

Luc Theriault, Bloc Quebecois MP for Montcalm, PQ put forward the motion, “That the House recognize the injustice, abuse and suffering endured by the British Home Children as well as the efforts, participation and contribution of these children and their descendants within our communities; and offer its sincere apology to the British Home Children who are still living and to the descendants of these 100,000 individuals who were shipped from Great Britain to Canada between 1869 and 1948, and torn from their families to serve mainly as cheap labour once they arrived in Canada.”

Theriault was supported by MPs Judy Sgro (Humber River-Black Creek; Liberal), Mark Strahl (Chilliwack-Hope; Conservative), Jenny Kwan (Vancouver East; NDP) and Elizabeth May (Saanich-Gulf Islands; Green).

In Canada, British Home Children and their descendants are estimated to make up 10 to 12% of the population, or nearly 4 million Canadians. Among the children sent to Quebec was John James Rowley – father of Hélène Rowley, who married Jean Duceppe and had 7 children, including Gilles Duceppe, former Bloc Quebecois leader and MP.

“I am very happy that all the parties have joined together today to apologize, as did Australia and the United Kingdom, to the British Home Children,” Duceppe said following the announcement.

Australia issued its apology in 2009, when Prime Minister Kevin Rudd spoke of “the tragedy, the absolute tragedy of childhoods lost.” The UK apologized on behalf of the British government in 2010. In Canada, the government declined to respond to calls for an apology - until now.

Advocates are delighted with the news.  Sandra Joyce, co-founder of British Home Child Group International  (britishhomechild.com) and a British Home Child descendant, called it “truly an exciting moment for the British Home Children still with us and their descendants... Their stories, largely unknown until now because of the stigma they faced in Canada, are part of the diverse tapestry that makes up our great nation.” She expressed a hope that the acknowledgement will lead to “more reunions of families torn apart by this child migrant scheme.” 

The Elman W. Campbell Museum presents an exhibit on British Home Children at the Old Town Hall in Newmarket, 460 Botsford St., from April 1 to 15. Personal memorabilia, such as trunks, photos, postcards and medals, will form a significant portion of this exhibit. A presentation on April 1 at noon will feature the film “Lost and Found,” and an account of a Newmarket-area family that hosted Home Children. The film will be followed by the unveiling of a Sesquicentennial  Canadian Memorial British Home Child Quilt, at 2 p.m., and a panel discussion.

The exhibit, created by the British Home Child Group International, will be open from noon to 8 p.m., and features the Phyl Wright, Karen Mahoney and Sandra Joyce Collections. BHCGI is dedicated to raising awareness, reuniting families separated by the Child Migrant scheme, and providing free genealogical research to descendants. For more information, contact the Elman W. Campbell Museum at 905-953-5314.