Nova Scotia

'Many stories left to be told' about British Home Children, says researcher

It's been 150 years since the beginning of the British Home Child migration scheme, an often forgotten part of Canada's history that saw more than 100,000 children sent from Britain to Canada between 1869 and the 1930s.

Migration scheme saw more than 100,000 children sent from Britain to Canada between 1869 and late 1930s

In Canada, British Home Children were mainly used as cheap labour on farms, and girls worked as domestic labourers. (Isaac Erb/Library and Archives Canada/PA-041785)

An often forgotten part of Canada's history is being recognized Saturday in Nova Scotia and across Canada.

Sept. 28 marks British Home Child Day. The migration scheme saw more than 100,000 children sent from Britain to Canada between 1869 and the 1930s.

Most of the children weren't orphaned, but were from families living in poverty. They were sent from Great Britain to Canada, where it was believed they'd have a better life and opportunities. The majority of them became domestic servants and labourers. Some were sexually, psychologically or physically abused.

As part of British Home Child Day, some buildings across Canada will be lit up in red, white and blue for the occasion, including the legislature in Halifax and the Big Fiddle in Sydney.

Barry Shears, a former Glace Bay, N.S., resident who now lives on Vancouver Island, said he's pleased with the recognition home children are receiving. Shears's maternal grandparents were home children and he's researching the lives of home children who were placed in Cape Breton for a book.

"I wish more of those people were around to see ... their recognition of what they've contributed to Canadian society. I'm glad to see people are doing more research now because there are still so many stories left to be told."

Fighting against stigma

Shears said one of the reasons many people don't know who British Home Children are is that the children often withheld their backgrounds.

"They were kind of embarrassed because they were treated like second-class citizens," said Shears.

He said some of the homes where the children were initially sent published articles about how successful the program was.

Dawn Stewart-Hopkins stands next to a project her daughter did for school. She's a Whitney Pier resident and descendent of a British Home Child. She has spent years researching home children placed in Cape Breton. (Brittany Wentzell/CBC)

"They talked about saving kids from such and such a situation, mother was a prostitute, father was a drunkard," said Shears. "The descriptions were just horrendous."

He said that led many Canadians to question why Canada was accepting the so-called "dregs of society."

Almost a century later, that stigma has been replaced with praise for the contributions the home children made to their adopted country. Earlier this year, the British Home Children and Descendants Association had a monument erected outside Pier 21 in Halifax.

Lost connections

Barry Shears is a descendent of two British Home Children. (Kim Sleno)

Dawn Stewart-Hopkins's grandmother was also a British Home Child. Stewart-Hopkins is from Whitney Pier, N.S., and like Shears, she also researches home children placed in Cape Breton and has helped other Cape Bretoners find out more information about their relatives.

"My grandmother came with a Bible and one pence, the boys and girls were separated, they came from England to Halifax and then they were sent on trains or carriages to their placement homes and my mother never saw her brother again," she said.

Stewart-Hopkins said one barrier to finding information on home children is that some didn't have much documentation, which made it hard for some to even know their birthday.

She said one of the proudest moments of her grandmother's life was receiving her birth certificate as an adult, which she needed to get her pension.

A Cape Breton specific predicament

Shears estimates around 200 home children settled in Cape Breton, where some of them were dealt a unique challenge: learning Gaelic. That was the language used in some households.

"There are some letters ... saying, 'I enjoy my life here very much and I'm even learning to read and write in a second language: Gaelic,'" said Shears.

Shears said some home children became fierce supporters of Gaelic traditions and were part of the board of directors of the Gaelic College in Cape Breton.

About the Author

Brittany Wentzell

Current Affairs Reporter/Editor

Brittany Wentzell is based in Sydney, N.S., as a reporter for Information Morning Cape Breton. She has covered a wide range of issues including education, forestry and municipal government. Story ideas? Send them to brittany.wentzell@cbc.ca

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