Canada's Orphan Migrants Dig for Their Roots

Ken Donovan works in his Ottawa garden and recites the numbers.

"Thirty-two was Mike Clancy. Thirty-three was Lynch. Thirty-four was -" He draws a blank for a moment. His brow furrows with puzzlement. "I can't remember his name, but he was blond. Forty-two - that was me."

Mr. Donovan, now a retired civil servant, is a "home child," as child migrants are called in Canada. He spent much of his early childhood in an orphanage in Wales, where the children were known by numbers rather than names.

His father had been killed during World War I. His mother, a seamstress, served by sewing uniforms for the British Army and had to put her son into an orphanage.

For Ken, the first chance to get his name back came when a nun walked into the classroom one day and asked for a show of hands: "Who wants to go to Canada?"

"I raised my hand," he says, and within a few months he was on his way to Quebec.

It is well known that, like the United States, Canada and Australia are nations of immigrants. But many of those immigrants were like Ken Donovan, just children - on their own, without family. By one scholar's estimate, some 11.5 percent of the Canadian population is descended from home children.

Starting in the mid-19th century, as many as 150,000 child migrants - most but by no means all of them orphans - were shipped from Britain to help populate the vast empty spaces of the Empire. Many of these littlest immigrants made their way successfully. The practice of sending children to Canada ended shortly before World War II. In Australia, it ended in 1967. But the legacy of child migration includes thousands of people in Canada and Australia longing to find out more about their parents and family history.

Now efforts are under way to help make such reunions and family tracings easier. A committee of the British Parliament has held an inquiry and issued a report, to which the government is expected to respond this session. Prime Minister Tony Blair's Labour government in Britain has shown more interest in child migrants than its predecessors.

"We sincerely hope that what the report will do is to create an impetus for us all to work together, and to raise the profile of the issue," says Caroline Abrahams in London. She is an official of NCH Action for Children, an agency that sent 3,000 children to Canada before World War I.

The committee has recommended establishment of a central database of the sending agencies, as well as funding for counseling and to facilitate travel by former child migrants and their families back to Britain.

The story of child migrants today is, in part, a story of how societies and families gradually come to terms with difficult chapters of the past.

At the time, child migration was seen as a way to lightened the burden on social-welfare budgets in Britain and often produced an income for the agencies that placed children as farm laborers or domestic servants. It is estimated that two-thirds of them were abused in some way. They generally were given little education.

The home children's lives were often marked by acts of unthinking cruelty, but also by the kindness of strangers, gratefully remembered decades later. George Barter, who still lives in the house in Ottawa he built during the 1920s, remembers his foster mother bringing him noontime sandwiches out in the field where he was harvesting turnips barehanded.

Today, many families of home children have grown up in the dark about their parents' backgrounds.

William Price, who now lives in Ottawa, says that when he tried to explain about his background, "my family didn't believe me. That's why I had to write the book," he says, referring to his memoirs, "Celtic Odyssey."

Arthur Monk, of Beachburg, Ontario, who came to Canada as a young boy in the 1920s, realizes that he is one of the more fortunate home children. His "placement" on a farm led to a happy relationship that continues today.

Still, it was only about 10 years ago, he says, that he began to talk about his childhood. "I must have been ashamed, but of what? I had done nothing wrong. Was I ashamed of my family? Why did they not keep me? Why did they put me in a home?"

He began to do research. As a child, he was never told when a beloved grandmother, who had cared for him, had died. All he knew was that he was suddenly in an orphanage and then on his way to Canada. "We were discouraged from asking questions. Things like that were 'none of your business,'" he says. "Only eight years ago I found out about the poverty they experienced. I have the record of us boys being in the workhouse.

"When I found that out, I couldn't blame my family. They put us in homes so that we could come to Canada and have a new life. And that's what happened."

At a time when, once again, war and social upheaval have uprooted so many children, in the Balkans, the former Soviet Union, and elsewhere, the experience of Britain's child migrants may have some useful lessons about the wisdom of separating children from their families.

"You think, how could anyone have ever thought this [child migration] was a good idea?" says an official at a British social-service agency. "And then you wonder, what are we doing now that we'll think differently of 20 years from now?"

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