By David F. Rooney
You’re a child, perhaps nine or 10, sent across the sea from Britain to a faraway country called Canada because your parents are dead or, even worse, they’ve given you away. That leaves you sad, frightened and bewildered. If you’re lucky the best is yet to come. Of course, it could also mean the worst is yet to come, too…
That sounds like the premise for a gothic novel, but it was a fact of life for 100,000 children from penniless families who were sent from Britain to Canada to work as indentured servants between 1869 and 1948. What’s an indentured servant? It’s a form of legal slavery that bound the indentured person to work for whoever held their bond. Here in Canada — and in Australia and New Zealand where another 30,000 children were sent — that usually meant working on farms.
Today, those original child labourers have millions of descendents here in Canada. Surprisingly (or not, if you think about it), many of those descendents may have no idea that their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents were near-slaves exiled from their homeland.
Certainly, West Kootenay writer Sean Arthur Joyce, author of Laying the Children’s Ghosts to Rest: Canada’s Home Children in the West, had no idea his grandfather was one.
“It was a huge surprise,” he said in a recent interview. “I grew up without knowing anything about my grandfather’s past.”
Joyce said he found out only when he began digging into his family’s past.
“I found that to be a common thread — many never discussed their past. These kids learned to hide their identities (because)… there was a tremendous social stigma attached to being a ‘Home Child.’”
This is a story that reaches into Revelstoke’s past and he plans to explore that when he speaks about his book and this phenomenon at the Revelstoke Museum & Archives on Tuesday, October 21, at 7 pm.
Admission is free and this is certainly going to be a very interesting presentation. Joyce has already received accolades:
Cole Harris, Professor Emeritus of Historical Geography at UBC, calls Laying the Children’s Ghosts to Rest “A significant achievement in Canadian history.” Gary Geddes, an icon of Canadian poetry, says, “Joyce is an excellent writer and has produced an important, engaging book. With a poet’s eye, he often finds the exact image to make his story fly beneath the radar and nest in the ear and eye…”