Sean Arthur Joyce didn’t know his grandfather very well. It was only after he was grown up that he learned that his family was heir to an experience that concerns more than four million Canadians.
“I started to research and found out that my grandfather had been one of the home children, the very poorest of British children who were sent to Canada and other Commonwealth countries as indentured servants as young as five years old,” said Joyce, a B.C. writer and journalist, whose new book is Laying the Children’s Ghosts to Rest: Canada’s Home Children in the West.
“These children were called ‘gutter trash.’ There was nothing for them, as their parents were destitute because of the changes of the industrial revolution. They received minimal, if any, schooling and were working on farms by the age of 10.”
More than 100,000 children were sent to Canada, most through private and church organizations, most to the east. Joyce decided to find out what happened to the ones in Western Canada.
“They were set apart from their communities, seen as lower class with bad breeding and few of them ever made it to high school,” said Joyce. “When I discovered my grandfather had been in the program, I was shocked. I consider myself a pretty well-educated Canadian, yet I had never heard anything about this in history. I wanted to fill in that gap about what happened in Western Canada.”
Part of his research was on Dr. Barnardo’s program, which brought children to Vancouver Island and to what is now Fintry Provincial Park to learn orcharding skills. One of these was Joe Harwood, who became one of Vernon’s early town fathers with a successful business, school and area of town named for him.
Not every home child was so successful.
“Many of them were unable to settle in one place, keep a job or socialize and many turned to alcohol and had broken marriages. We’re dealing now with their children and grandchildren,” said Joyce. “A lot of people don’t know that this is part of their background and even when the story has been told, there is a lingering subconscious effect down the generations. My book will help people get more information and reclaim their families’ individual past and achieve a certain amount of healing.
“One of the most basic aspects of a person’s self worth is their sense of identity. If they don’t know who they are, where they come from, it’s hard to have a sense of resolution.”
Joyce combines his thoroughly researched historical material with memoir, what he was able to find out about his grandfather and interviews with some of the last of the home children.
“I wanted to get beyond straight history and focus on the individual impacts on the children — to use it as a story of redemption. These were children from the lowest rung of society who were given the worst possible start yet many of them managed to create stable homes and families — quite an achievement,” he said.
Joyce will be reading from Laying the Children’s Ghosts to Rest: Canada’s Home Children in the West Saturday at 1 p.m. at the Greater Vernon Museum and Archives. For more information on the book and Joyce’s other publications, see his blog chameleonfire1.wordpress.com/?=home+children or his website www.chameleonfire.ca.