Ryan Taylor Children came to new lives in Canada
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By Ryan Taylor

Marjorie Kohli has a big interest in other people's children. Tens of thousands of children.

Her study of the child immigration movement, The Golden Bridge: Young Immigrants to Canada, 1833-1939 (Natural Heritage Books, $34.95), will be published next week. In it, she tells the story of the many organizations which brought children to new lives in Canada from Britain and Ireland.

"A lot of people ask me why they did this," Kohli says. In our day, we hear tales of children of twelve working for their living in a strange country and think of it as tragic.

But it was a different age. The charities who cared for the children were motivated by Christian principles of helping the helpless. Many of the children were orphans (not all) and many lived in the worst kind of slum conditions-bad sanitation, poor food and overcrowding.

The idea that children of twelve would go to work was universal in these poor areas. They might work in factories or shops, as domestic servants, any place they could scrounge a few pennies to contribute to the family coffers. At the other end of the scale, people of seventy would also still hold jobs-retirement was unknown.

To modern eyes, the children were used to the economic advantage of employers, but Kohli doubts that this was a primary motivation for the immigrant organizations. They thought that they were giving these poor children a better chance at life.

The emigrant children were placed in farms as agricultural workers (for the boys) or as domestic servants (for the girls). Many of them were indeed mistreated, but the institutions had rules about what was suitable, and they did try to check on each child's well-being. Long distances made it difficult, but there are instances of children being removed from homes which were unsuitable.

Kohli tells the story of a woman whose mother came with the Quarrier Homes, a Scottish charity. She complained to Kohli about how hard her mother had to work on the farm where she was placed.

Kohli asked her if she had grown up on a farm herself. She had. Had she worked hard? The woman said she often bemoaned her lot, having to miss school on Mondays because she had to help out with the family laundry.

And how was that different from her mother's situation? Kohli laughs when she says the woman had to reconsider her view of the child emigrant's life. Perhaps it was not so different from the lives of working class children everywhere.

Many more boys than girls came in the immigration schemes, partly because after the 1890s there was a reluctance to send girls older than twelve. Many girls came with organizations that were exclusively feminine, in an attempt to protect them better.

Kohli's study of the organizations which sponsored Canadian child immigrants will be the definitive work on the subject for many years to come. She has tried to remain as neutral as possible regarding the morality of the situation. "I wanted to tell the history of this movement. I didn't want to take sides, but to relate facts. I hope that's what I've done," she says.

Thirty years ago this aspect of Canadian history was shrouded in mystery, largely because there was a sense of shame attached to being a Home Child. No longer. This chapter of Canadian history has come into the sunlight, with both its tears and its hope.

Posted October 10, 2003
Column copyright © 2003 Ryan Taylor

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