Even the best intentions can be paving stones to hell. In most cases, well-intentioned people like Thomas Barnardo thought they were helping homeless British children by sending them across the “golden bridge” to new homes in Canada. Their lives, however, were anything but golden.
In Laying the Children’s Ghosts to Rest, Sean Arthur Joyce serves up some startling statistics. From the 1860s to 1967, “some 130,000 children were scooped up from the mean streets” of Britain “to be used as slave labour.” About 100,000 of them ended up in Canada, mostly on farms. Joyce, himself a grandson of a home child, points out that today there could be as many as four million descendants of these children – about one in eight Canadians!
Conditions for homeless children in Britain were barely tolerable. In the East End of London, four out of five infants would die before their fifth year. Barnardo and Annie Macpherson started “ragged schools” – so named because the children were literally in rags – that provided them with at least one meal per day.
Shipping excess children to Canada was a cornerstone of Barnardo’s policy. One recent widow, who could no longer afford to feed five little mouths, gave up two of her sons to Barnardo’s care, knowing that she may never see them again. She spent many nights crying herself to sleep. Readers themselves may wish to keep a box of tissues handy.
Joyce uses the life stories of several home children as case studies. One girl, indentured to work on a farm, had been told that the fair was coming and that she could go. Bubbling with excitement as she anticipated seeing colourful tents and exotic animals, she got up extra early to do her chores, then watched as the family drove off without her.
Joyce cites examples of deliberate cruelty. One young lad was forced to walk to Sunday school in a blizzard, even though the farmer knew the church was closed. The boy returned to the farm with a badly frozen right foot that had to be amputated.
Laying the Children’s Ghosts to Rest is thoroughly researched, meticulously documented, and powerfully written in the style of a well-versed storyteller. Although essentially non-fiction, parts of this 351-page book read like fiction. This is especially true where Joyce creates dialogue by conjuring up voices from the past. Dealing with a neglected and sad chapter of Canadian history, it’s a book all Canadians should read.
The legacy of these home children is that Canada is a better and richer place because of them. In 2010, Canada Post issued a postage stamp honouring them, but there was no apology for the abuse they suffered. Until we can heal the children’s ghosts by acknowledging past wrongs, they will continue to haunt us.
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