Highway of Hope
by Maria Henry
Immigrant children from Dr. Barnardos
Homes at Landing Stage, St. John, NB. These were the first
children to arrive after World War I. (Libray
and Archives Canada PA-041785)
To be a home boyits
so hard to explaintheres a certain stigma.
I know that for a fact. Youre just in a class. Youre
Years ago you counted as dirt. You were a nobody.
That was only common sense. You were alone in the world.
William Price, Home Boy, This
In 1991, Dave & Kay Lorente hosted
the first reunion for British migrant childrenHome Childrenand
their families in Renfrew. Billie Price, 81, fled the event.
When Dave had gently invited the Home Children to tell their
stories, Price couldnt bear it. He apologized the next
day. I couldnt stay. If I had, I would have broke
down. Never thought Id see the day when Home Children
would be recognized and honoured.
This recognition is largely due to the
tireless efforts of the Lorentes. As founders of Home Children
Canada (HCC), a sub-committee of Heritage Renfrew, they have
given a voice to the children of long agothe wards of
the Homesthat history seems to have forgotten.
Daves own father, Joe, never spoke
in detail of his childhood. One day in 1963, Dave drove a
reluctant father for a ride in the country to
Killaloe. As they approached the old train station, Joe cryptically
said, Thats where they left
Joe began to get even more agitated as they approached the
nearby ghost town of Brudenell. Joe was excited to recognize
Queen of Angels Church, but refused to drive past the cemeteries.
Dave thought this odd, but not wanting to intrude, did not
The answer to this strange behaviour came
in 1979, 14 years after his fathers death. Upon reading
Phyllis Harrisons collection The Home Children: Their
Personal Stories, it dawned on Dave: His father may have been
a Home Child. It took another 11 years to prove it.
As educators with a passion for ancient
history and archaeology, Dave and Kay were well-suited for
the detective work which was in store.
Dave started to fit the pieces together,
gathering snippets of information from his own mother, writing
to many former sending agencies in Britain. When
he retired, it took Dave four years of researching records
at Ottawas National Archives to discover that his Cardiff-born
father came from London, England; that in February 1914, at
15, he sailed unattended on the SS Virginian; that he had
been sent as a farmhand to Brudenell; that an incident
with a pitchfork had him hiding in the woods until the
neighbours found him and returned him to the Catholic distribution
home in Ottawa, St. Georges Home. In his next
placement, in Fallowfield, he was treated well.
In 1991, as outgoing president of Heritage
Renfrew, a local history society, Dave was invited to lecture
on any topic of his choice. He told his colleagues that he
would like to speak on Home Children, because nobody
seems to know a damn thing about them. One responded,
Oh, I wasnt allowed to play with Home Children.
Dave describes this moment as magic, an
epiphany, when he realized why these children never
talked about their pasts: They were stigmatized.
If that conversation was the conception
of Home Children Canada, the first Home Child reunion was
its birth. One major goal of HCC would be to explain and remove
the shame that these children-now-adults had carried for all
Who were these 100,000 children sent to
Canada between 1869 and the 1930s? Why were they sent so far,
to live among strangers? Why were they so ashamed that, in
later years, even their own families did not know their past?
Post-Industrial Revolution Britain: the
city alleys and docks were filthy and diseased. In the last
quarter of the 1800s, half the children died before their
fifth birthday. Outcast and impoverished, these children were
branded as waifs and strays, guttersnipes
or street Arabs. The first attempt to help in
1844 was called The Ragged Schools Movement.
The social reformers of the age felt it
a religious calling to rescue these children. Annie MacPherson,
founder of the Marchmont Home in Belleville writes: Boys came
to us [in London] for shelter instead of going to empty barrels,
railway arches, and stairways
But our walls had limits,
and our failures in finding employment for many away from
their old haunts became a great difficulty, and the God-opened
way of emigration to Canada was pressed upon us.
MacPherson accompanied her first group
to Belleville in 1870. Philanthropist Thomas Barnardo fully
embraced child migration in 1881, opening Hazelbrae in Peterborough.
Both of these homes were for Protestant children. Catholic
children were placed at first through Quebec; in 1904 St.
Georges Home was established in Ottawa. The Lorentes
say thousands were sent to the Ottawa Valley primarily
through these receiving homes. There were many other agencies
in other areas.
Dave and Kay Lorente have no doubt the
reformers were sincere. Barnardo described his program as
the Highway of Hope, often describing these children
as gifts to Canada, the flower of the flock.
An associate of MacPherson paints this
pastoral scene: Miss MacPherson has been able to spend
of her time visiting among the different farms where our children
are located, within some 20 or 40 miles of Belleville in the
counties of Hastings and Prince Edward
and oh! the joy
of these children to hear the cheery voice of her who had
first seen and relieved their misery in the old country.
However, the picture was not always pretty.
In 1869 Maria Rye was the first to establish a home in Canada
at Niagara-on-the-Lake. Answering many critics, she admitted
the short-comings of some of her methods, writing in 1893:
At the commencement of my work I did indenture the children,
but practically it did not work, there was far more danger
to the child in being obliged to stay where it had become
hateful and was not wanted. At the commencement of this work
in 1869 I fondly hoped
all the people who took them would
be perfect; experience soon undeceived me.
Most children in the sending homes were
not orphans. Perhaps a parent had died leaving the family
destitute. Longing for a better life for their children, a
parent might willingly sign over their rights to an agency.
Sometimes a parent would give permission for the child to
be sent abroad. But sometimes, it was done without.
Children were often too young to comprehend,
at first, the gravity of what was happening to them.
Susan Kelly came through St. Georges
Home in Ottawa to Calumette Island, near Pembroke, when she
was 10. She was scared she says to be in a new
country. But what she remembers most was the nun who bought
all the kids ice cream when the ship docked in Quebec in 1920.
For some it was an adventure, sailing
on ships with lofty names like Empress of Scotland, Hesperian,
and Min-nedosa. Art Monk tells The Cobden Sun in 1993: it
was all a lark. We didnt realize what was happening.
I can remember laughing and giggling about it. He was
11-years-old when he came to Marchmont in Belleville in 1923.
Although Art was treated well by the Leech
family in Rankin, he always knew he was different. He was
alone a lot, he says, with his thoughts. I would wonder
whats happening. Lonely, he would often cry himself
to sleep. As an adult he didnt tell his own family he
was a Home Child until 1989.
For many Home Children, there was also
disappointment. By contract, wages were supposed to be put
aside in an accountminus expenses. Very
often, when a child left their employers service, they
would find little, if any, in their account. Those expenses,
such as clothing, claimed by the employer had presumably eaten
away any earnings.
Despite evidence, testimonies, documentaries
and books, skeptics still refuse to believe that Britain and
Canada could possibly have taken part in a child migration
scheme such as this. Many are simply unaware; the topic remains
untaught in most schools. In 1999, former Governor General
Romeo LeBlanc called this ignorance collective amnesia.
The Lorentes have been working to change
this, mostly at their own expense. HCC has been their passion
in their retirement years. By writing thousands of letters,
lecturing, consulting and building networks, they have unlocked
closed doors, making it possible for the Home Children and
their families to obtain precious recordsand finally
get closure. In 2002 alone, they wrote 4,418 letters.
In 1998, at the invitation of British
PM Tony Blair, they presented a compelling brief to a British
Parliamentary committee. They outlined the ordeal of these
children and the inherited problems that come
with no classification. They urged the government
to claim responsibility, and make records available.
Unfortunately, some records had been destroyed,
with only fragments of information on cardex. However, just
like detectives, the Lorentes have discovered that other records
were merely forgotten, lost in an attic or basement.
Sometimes it takes years for a Home Child
to steel themselves enough to write to Britain for their records.
Charlie Martin waited four years to write. After learning
of his past Charlie told Dave, Im mad, Im
sad, and I cried. They lied to me. His mother in England
had written letters that were never forwarded to him. The
Lorentes explain it was considered wise in those days to make
a clean break.
Likewise, siblings were rarely, if ever,
placed together. Nora Overs was 15 in 1923. Her brother George,
who had arrived in Canada earlier, contributed to her passage,
expecting that she would be placed with him. She wasnt.
It took him two years to find her working as a domestic in
Some migrant children, especially those
sent to Australia have considered litigation. When the members
of HCC heard this in 1992, they passed a resolutiontheir
only resolution, everstating: We will not ask for restitution.
We will not ask for retribution. We will not even ask for
an apology. We are glad to be in Canada. We are proud to call
ourselves Canadians. All we really want is access to our records.
There are now at least five historical
plaques memorializing these migrant children at significant
sites in Canada (mostly in Ontario), each unveiled by a Home
Child. Compassionate open letters of commendation
have been written by leaders of the federal government, including
former-Prime Minister M Jean Chretien. Sheila Copps, then-Minister
of Canadian Heritage, recognized the Home Children story was
of official national significance. From Britain,
even Princess Diana lent her voice.
The Lorentes feel such gestures are crucial
to relieving the rejection. Shame is yielding to hope. The
reunions, which grow larger each time, have done much to heal
the isolation. And, finally, thanks to Dave and Kays
generous perseverance, the lasting contributions of Home Children
are being acknowledged.
Originally, the federal government paid
$2 per child and Ontario paid $6, as demand for cheap labour
was so high; now the descendants of these children pay $20
to $25 billion in taxes every year. It has been said that
Home Children and their descendants comprise 11 percent of
William Price, so fearful of
his past, went on to write a memoir of his ordeal called
Charlie Martin erected a statue
of St. Patrick and a plaque honouring the pioneer families
in the idyllic valley of Mount St. Patrick near Renfrew.
Nora Overs became a much-loved
Sister of St. Joseph in Pembroke, serving for 72 years.
The Lorentes delivered her eulogy at her request.
Susan Kelly Chaput settled in
Pembroke and had 13 children. Two little girls died in a
fire, while she was giving birth to a third, who also died
young. Her sons just dote on her. She says she loves Canada.
Since her landing, ice cream is her favourite food.
Art Monk, so grateful to the
Leech family, dedicated a stained glass window in their
name at the Anglican church in Rankin. As hard as life was
sometimes, he writes, I am proud to be a Canadian.
Like Joe Lorente, Louis Casartelli
and Joe Brown had also gone as farmhands to Brudenell. Both
became priests for the RC diocese of Pembroke, ministering
to the very communities where so many of the little migrants
struggled. Although bittersweet, Rev. Brown reflected a
pride common to HCC members when he said, I never
celebrate my birthday. I celebrate the day I came to Canada.
(The saga doesnt end here, Mr. Lorente
has helped other little migrants, as well: the Child Evacuees
of WWII who were sent as late as 1948. He says many suffered
the same effects of loss and separation as the original Home
Children; some were never allowed to return home.)
For 14 years Dave Lorente answered requests
for assistance in locating Home Children records. He has now
handed the torch to John Sayers of the British Isles Family
History Society of Greater Ottawa. For more information:
John Sayers, Home Children Committee, BIFHSGO
2157 Fillmore Crescent, Ottawa ON K1J 6A1
This is an original story,
first published in The Country Connection Magazine,
Issue 47, Summer/Autumn 2004. Copyright Maria Henry.
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