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Uprooted: The Shipment of Poor Children to Canada

30 January 2008

A new book tells the story of the 80,000 British children shipped to Canada between 1867 and 1917.

The research relies heavily upon many archival sources, both public and private, and in both Britain and Canada. These have provided the means of tracing and explaining the nature of the Canadian demand for such children (essentially reflecting the nature of the Canadian farm family economy) as well as the factors in Britain that led to it partially being met. The movement was much influenced by religious considerations linked to contemporary notions of ‘child saving’. The evangelical impetus was strong, but so too was that emanating from the Catholic Church, and these found sympathetic connections in Canada – for the Protestants mainly in Ontario (and later Manitoba) and for the Catholics in francophone Québec.

Political and economic factors on both sides of the Atlantic also played their part in shaping this exodus. In Canada there was the quest for additional population – particularly from Britain. At the same time there was substantial opposition to the children entering the country, and this had to be politically managed.

The emergent Canadian trade union movement was fiercely antagonistic to child immigration and in particular to the official subsidies that were paid to those who engineered it. But opposition also came from the large civic authorities (especially Toronto); from the medical profession; from philanthropic welfare agencies and from the press.

There were deep apprehensions about allowing into Canada children who were regarded as potential social casualties or criminals

One connecting thread running through these different sources of opposition was a fear that the children brought with them the threat of eugenic deterioration – that Canada would be corrupted by the importation of a poor and ‘degraded’ stock. Although rarely spelled out in so many words this was linked to the belief that children were likely to be the carriers of latent syphilis because of their origins.

Together with this there were deep apprehensions about allowing into Canada those who had been in British Poor Law institutions, industrial schools or reformatories – children who were regarded as potential social casualties or criminals.

Hence, while Canadian farming in particular needed cheap or free labour, those whom the emigrationists (like Barnardo, Quarrier, Fegan and the others) provided were viewed with considerable suspicion. Although Canadian governments variously supported the emigrationists, they were anxious not to be seen to be doing so in too obvious a manner. Their defence, when challenged, was usually the claim that the immigration was unofficial and organised and overseen by private bodies.

Many of the children suffered from loneliness, a ‘spoiled identity’ and demanding work

The question that emerges from this history is not the usual one – ‘why were so many British children sent to Canada’, but ‘why were there not more’? The opposition is one important explanation; but others are to be found in the cautious and often unenthusiastic attitudes of the Local Government Board (responsible for Poor Law children) and the Home Office in London; in the growing disinclination of Poor Law guardians to send children in their care to Canada, and in the desire of certain employers in Britain to retain a ready supply of local labour, especially in the textile industry and for domestic service.

Nonetheless, many children were sent to Canada, especially by organisations like Barnardos, and once there, many suffered from loneliness; from a ‘spoiled identity’; from demanding work and frequent moves. Some were abused and girls especially were vulnerable to sexual exploitation. Of course, some found kind and caring families, but the image often promoted by the emigrationists of orphan children being ’adopted’ and then putting their past behind them was far from reality. These issues are explored by drawing upon a selection of the children’s letters that have survived.

In seeking to explain the child emigration movement, light is also cast on a far wider field: for example, on the diplomatic relations between the British and Canadian governments; in Canada on the relations between the federal and provincial governments; on the uneven development of education in Canada; on the significance of deportation in relieving Canada of the socially dependent (for example, pregnant girls and injured boys), and upon issues about the assumption of Canadian nationality.

Uprooted: The Shipment of Poor Children to Canada, 1867 – 1917 by Professor Roy Parker is published by the Policy Press.
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