When Author, Researcher and Founder & CEO of British Home Children Advocacy and Research Association, Lori Oschefski, visited Shelburne’s Public Library in 2015 to promote her new book, The Bleeting Of The Lambs and provided a presentation on British Home Children, Oschefski told a story, a historically, factually true story of 118,000 children who were shipped to Canada from Britain, Scotland and across Europe during the years of 1869-1948. Politically, what started out as a way to provide orphans with a brighter future by sending them to Canada, a land of opportunity, turned into what is revealed as a money making endeavor shipping what was referred to as the scourge of vermin, ravenously taking food out of the mouths of the “good, decent, and hardworking” British population. In fact, Britain was depressed, and poverty, epidemic in proportion, so when impoverished families saw a chance for their children to have a brighter future, many jumped at the opportunity to send their children away from poverty and possible early death. Many of the children were ‘turned over’ to orphanages or British Homes For The Poor such as the well known Dr. Thomas Bernardo Homes for Children. While there was a population of children who were in fact orphans, many were not. Some parents believed that when they themselves got back on their feet financially, they could send for their child to return. Sadly this was not the case. They had turned their children over to be shipped away, never to return after becoming work hands on Canadian farms, virtual slaves, overworked, abused and often met their fate shortly after arriving to Canada as a direct result of neglect and hardship. Few children by comparison to the numbers sent actually did find homes of sanctuary and the love of an adoptive family, and although it happened, there was always an embarrassing, horrifyingly, degrading stigma that followed all of these children in one way or another. After all, if your parents gave you away, your country considered you vermin, what redeeming quality could you as a child or human being could you actually claim? From start to finish, this scheme was a lie that irrevocably tore families apart sending traumatized children away on their own to fend for themselves if they could and many simply could not.
Oschefski’s enlightening and heart wrenching account of her own mother’s experience as a British Home Child really gives the public an idea into the suffering these poor children endured. Children ranged in ages as from 3 years old to just under 18 and and in a very real sense, sold like cattle. These children were owned, and social workers rarely followed up, and for this reason, the work Oschefski does is so important, giving voice to so many who lost their lives on the journey to a much dreamed of bright future that Canada has yet to apologize for.
Growing up, our family valued our ties to Scotland via my grandfather’s wild tales of adventure travelling to the country of his dreams, that being Canada, when he was just 14 years old. The images are very clear in my mind of a head strong, scruffy, thin, boy, his hazel eyes fixed on the horizon, smoking, while looking out over the ship’s rail and dreaming the simple dream of one day, as he often said, “I just wanted a patch of grass to call my own, a home and a family.” The family marveled at this account and my grandfather rarely would explain how he paid to come to come to Canada, the story sort of jumped from, ” I came over with my older brother and we found work in Orangeville on a farm, and I’ve seen everywhere from the Eastern Coast to Toronto. ” How exciting for the 14 year old adventure seeker, especially if had it been a truthful account.
Following Oschefski’s presentation, the sick feeling in the pit of my stomach tied all the wild tales my grandfather told together and following a little research revealed he too had been signed over, given away, and found himself on a boat to Canada where he was fortunate to have found work on the farm of a family who cared for and valued him. Eventually, John Tait did find a little patch of grass to call his own, married, had a home to call his own, raised a family in Kirkland Lake, Ontario where he could canoe, and camp and come to adore the fresh clean air of Canada and all that nature had to offer. Although many would prefer to hear the adventurous account, it was a fourteen year old’s resolution for optimism that most likely saved him and others like him who realized they could leave when they turned 18 if they lived through their experience. And many families, like mine may never know of their loved ones harrowing factual experience as British Home Children. Not surprising, many never speak of it until close to their death, a sort of fessing up as their unwarranted shame finally gives way.
Click image for Oschefski’s presentation in 2015 at Shelburne’s Public Library.
Oschefski’s movement to request the Canadian Government actually apologize as other Countries have, to the families and survivors of The British Home Children historic abuse and the role the government played is still very active.
For more information, visit their website.
Alex Sher, The Shelburne Freelancer