British PM apologizes to 'home children'

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown apologized Wednesday for a government program instituted in the 19th century that sent poor children from London's slums overseas to do hard labour in British colonies, including Canada.

Children from London's slums sent to work in colonies from late 1800s to 1939

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown apologized Wednesday for a government program instituted in the 19th century that sent poor children from London's slums overseas to do hard labour in British colonies, including Canada.

'Home child' Marjorie Skidmore, left, with her daughter Patricia Skidmore, talks with reporters on her way to Britain's Houses of Parliament, in London, on Wednesday. ((CBC))

"To all those former child migrants and their families, to those here with us today and those across the world, to each and every one, I say we are truly sorry," Brown said in Parliament.

"We are sorry that instead of caring for them, this country turned its back. And, we're sorry that the voices of these children were not always heard, their cries for help not always heeded. And we're sorry that it's taken so long for this important day to come and for the full and unconditional apology that is justly deserved."

Brown said he would meet a number of former child migrants, who were known as "home children,"  "to listen first-hand to their experiences."

"As prime minister, I will be apologizing on behalf of our nation," he said.

Canadians in audience

Seven Canadians travelled to London to hear the apology in Parliament.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown apologized Wednesday in Parliament to British citizens sent abroad under the home children program and their descendants. ((Canadian Press))

"I've got butterflies," Marjorie Skidmore told CBC News, as she walked hurriedly with her daughter, Patricia, through London on Wednesday.

Skidmore, 83, was sent to Canada in 1938.

"It's about time that somebody recognized that ... it was not the right thing to do to take her from her family," Patricia Skidmore said.

"It's an apology, it's a beginning, and I think it's a beginning to put together the missing stories that are not there," she continued. "Theyr'e not in the history books and they need to be there."

Marjorie Skidmore, née Arnison, is one of the more than 100,000 juvenile migrants sent to Canada from Britain between the 1860s and 1939, when the program officially ended.

Many of those migrants ended up in rural communities, where families "welcomed them as a source of cheap farm labour and domestic help," according to the Canadian Genealogy Centre.

The churches and philanthropic organizations that sent the orphaned, abandoned and pauper children, usually between the ages of nine and 14, to Canada were "motivated by social and economic forces," the centre's website says.

More than 100,000 children were sent from London to rural areas in Canada between the 1860s and 1939, when the program ended. ((CBC))

But the working and living conditions for the migrants could be atrocious, some former home children have said, and many of the children were exploited or abused.

"They told us we were going to the land of milk and honey," Elsie Hathaway, who was six when she was put on a ship after being given a Bible and a vaccination shot, told CBC News in 2001. "But I never saw it."

Instead Hathaway, who was 85 when she was interviewed, ended up in a cramped shed for a week until authorities were satisfied that she and the other children didn't have any diseases. They were then given tags, put on trains and sent out to be exploited as cheap labour.

No apology from Canada

Stories like Hathaway's are what prompted Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to apologize for his country's role in the home children program on Nov. 16, 2009.

Canada has not apologized for its role in the program.

After Australia's apology, Canadian Immigration Minister Jason Kenney said the Conservative government had no plans to apologize.

"This is not something that has really been on the radar screen," said Kenney.

"Obviously, this is a British policy and the British government is going to take its own decision in that respect."

With files from The Associated Press