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Daughter writes, mother reconciles
On the top of a dresser in Pat Skidmore’s home in Port Moody, there is a black and white photo of her mother and father. They are standing on a street in Vancouver or Victoria, smiling for the camera, locked in an embrace.
The picture represents a happy time for Marjorie Arnison, who in May 1948 married Clifford Skidmore and moved to Coquitlam in 1955 to raise their family.
The joy was short-lived. A few weeks after their fifth child was born in October 1957, Clifford killed himself after a lobotomy at Riverview Hospital heightened his depression. Patricia believes he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder after working in the merchant navy.
Marjorie was a single mother, bringing up “welfare rats,” as Patricia described herself and her siblings — all of whom graduated from Centennial secondary.
But extreme poverty was nothing new for her mom.
Marjorie had seen her own mother, Winifred, struggle as a single parent raising nine children in northern England. Her father, Thomas, lived in London and, occasionally, sent back some money from his odd jobs around the U.K. and Europe.
In 1937, it was Thomas who sealed the fate for Marjorie, her brother Kenny and two sisters, Joyce (who would stay behind) and Audrey.
With England calling for “young soldiers” to provide British stock and cheap labour in its colonies of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Thomas — it is believed — was hoping to take the financial pressures off of his destitute wife and signed away the guardianship of their four children to the Fairbridge Society.
The decision, made without the consent of Winifred, hardened the family for years, writes Patricia in Marjorie, Too Afraid To Cry: A Home Child Experience, which was published last month by Dundurn.
“My mother never forgave her mother,” Patricia said, noting a visit to Canada in the 1960s was full of resentment towards Winifred for “giving up” her children.
Patricia said she started thinking about writing her book in 1986, when she accompanied her mother to Fairbridge Farm School, near Duncan on Vancouver Island — an institution supported financially by the Prince of Wales and other wealthy donors in the early part of the 20th century.
Marjorie spent five tough years at the farm school with Kenny and, later, Audrey, from 1937 to 1942. “When we visited the place, I was stunned. I expected there to be just a gravel pit because that was the negative image my mother had put in my mind of it,” Patricia said.
Instead, she saw lovely cottage homes, a chapel and other buildings full of an untold history. A decade later, while Patricia was pursuing her BA in women’s studies at the University of Victoria, she told colleagues about how her mother was a home child and “nobody knew about child migration,” Patricia said.
She started digging through provincial and community archives about the Fairbridge Farm. “It opened up a whole new world for me,” Patricia said, adding, “I had no idea about child migration and I was directly affected… It’s weird growing up without a family history.”
She wrote to her family in England to connect the dots. A poignant letter came from Joyce, who described how she felt being left behind because of her age, and not accompanying her three siblings to Canada.
Twice, Patricia took Marjorie back to England to piece together her childhood and to meet relatives for the first time.
And out of the blue, in February 2010, after 73 years of blackening out her early years, Marjorie got an unexpected gift from her native country. Following Australia’s lead, England formally apologized to the home children and for its child migration policy, which had been in effect from 1618 to 1974. Of the 118,000 home children accepted by Canada, 329 of them were placed at the Fairbridge Farm.
But because the apology ceremony was done in short order, only two home children from Canada were able to attend; another 65 flew in from Australia and New Zealand. Patricia has a photo of Marjorie shaking hands with then prime minister Gordon Brown, who delivered the apology in Parliament.
He recognized that “vulnerable children suffered unrelenting hardship and their families left behind were devastated. They were sent mostly without the consent of their mother or father. They were cruelly lied to and told that they were orphans and that their parents were dead, when in fact they were still alive.
“Some were separated from their brothers and sisters, never to see one another again. Names and birthdays were deliberately changed so that it would be impossible for families to reunite. Many parents did not know that their children had been sent out of this country,” Brown stated.
The apology struck a nerve with Marjorie, Patricia said, and has started the healing process. Marjorie, now 86, is no longer ashamed of her past. In fact, “she can talk about it with a great deal of pride,” Patricia said.
As for her book, for which Brown has written a foreword, Patricia said she has had “incredible reaction” from her family, here and abroad. Recently, she received a letter of congratulations from Gordon Campbell, Canada’s high commissioner for England; Marjorie, too, has drawn a fan club in her hometown of Oliver, B.C.
Still, her story isn’t over. Patricia has already written a manuscript for her second book about her mother, telling more about life at Fairbridge Farm School that couldn’t be included in the first book due to length.
And she plans to unravel more history behind the Fairbridge Society, which is now under the auspices of the Prince of Wales Trust Fund.
Said Patricia: “It feels like this has only just begun.”
• Marjorie, Too Afraid to Cry: A Home Child Experience is available through Coles and Chapters bookstores, and online at amazon.ca. For a signed copy, email firstname.lastname@example.org.