From a young age, Connie Falk was curious about her father, William’s, background. He never really talked about it and she wasn’t allowed to encourage him to do so.
“My friends had fathers and relatives and uncles, and I just had them on my mother’s side,” she said. “I kept asking my mother and she’d say, ‘Don’t you talk about it. Don’t you ask him anything.’ So, I just had to shut up.”
It wouldn’t be until after William’s death in 1993 that Falk, an Irricana resident, finally learned her father’s secret.
“My brothers and I decided we were going to do some investigating, and that’s how it all started,” she said. “I wrote over to Bernardo, that’s a big orphanage in England, and they sent me information on him, and then I started doing more research.”
William was born sometime in August 1908, and was admitted to the Scattered Homes at Plymouth – a would-be foster home – when he was just three, according to Falk.
“He stayed with the Scattered Homes at Plymouth ‘til he was about, say 12 or so. And then he was sent over to the Liverpool Sheltering Home with a whole bunch of other boys,” she said.
“This is where they taught them how to work on farms, and how to use the machinery and all this stuff. And then they were sent to Canada as farm labourers, cheap farm labourers.”
Falk said her dad arrived in Canada in March 1924.
William, it turns out, was one of more than 100,000 children, between 1869 to 1948, who were emigrated to Canada from the United Kingdom as part of the British Child Migration Scheme. The children, who ranged in age from a few months to 18 years old, were used as indentured farm workers and domestics – they were known as the British Home Children (BHC), according to a release from the British Home Children Advocacy and Research Association (BHCARA).
“The child migration scheme was supported by both British and Canadian governments which paid organizations for each child sent, additional bonus fees were paid for sending more children...,” the release stated. “This scheme was viewed as a win-win situation, as Britain reduced the cost of caring for many poor, destitute children, while Canada gained cheap labour for a country that was just starting to expand.”
While BHC were believed by many Canadians to be orphans, according to BHCARA, only two per cent truly were – the majority were from single-parent families, most often due to a parent dying – or from families that were destitute.
“They were actually bought. The Canadian farmers would pay whatever agency sent them over. And some of the kids, they were supposed to get some of this money and they never got a penny,” Falk said. “When they were 18 years old, they could strike it on their own, but they had absolutely no training. A lot of them were not allowed to go back to school, and they had been promised that.”
While some of the children were treated well, BHCARA said, “most were seen as nothing more than cheap labour, some suffered abuse; some cases of horrific abuse resulted in death.”
“[BHC were] often told by sending agencies that they were unwanted, uncared for or that their parents had died, while their parent(s) were told they were adopted by good British families,” the release stated.
Although checks were supposed to take place on a regular basis, according to BHCARA, things fell short due to vast number of children, lack of enforcement, shortage of inspectors, the immense distance and difficulty travelling to remote places to perform the checks.
“When inspectors did visit, the children didn’t necessary get to speak to, or even see, the inspector, and if they did it often occurred with the master present,” the release said. “Therefore the children would hide the truth for fear of being reprimanded or further abuse.”
Falk said she was shocked to find out her father was one of the BHC, but it also put the pieces in place to answer some of the questions she had about him.
“It just fills in a big void,” she said. “And then it all falls into place, like how they treated the families. Most of them got married, had children, but they didn’t know how to treat them.”
In November 2009, the Australian prime minister issued on apology for the country’s role in the Child Migration Scheme. Then in February 2010, the British prime minister followed suit, issuing an apology for Britain’s role.
“That’s important, it answers a lot of questions and gets people a feeling of belonging,” Falk said of the apologies. “Because these children were not treated very good.”
In Canada, Parliament declared 2010 Year of the British Home Child; on Feb 16, 2017 the House of Commons issued an apology; and on Feb 7, 2018 a private member’s motion unanimously passed, making Sept. 28 National British Home Child Day in Canada. To date, according to BHCARA, the Canadian prime minister has not issued an official apology on behalf of the government.
The first party of BHC arrived in Canada Nov. 8, 1869, according to the organization, making 2019 the 150th anniversary of this arrival. To commemorate the event, BHCARA invited municipalities to participate in the Sept. 28 Beacons of Light for British Home Children and Child Migrants Tribute. The Town of Irricana answered that call Sept. 17, when Mayor Frank Friesen signed a proclamation making Sept. 28 British Home Child Day in the town.
“[The proclamation] means a lot, because now I can talk about it,” Falk said. “I’ve tried to talk about it to people, but some don’t understand, and they’re not interested. I’m not going to force it. But now, with this proclamation, they’ll understand what I was talking about and where I’m coming from.”
She said she hopes the anniversary and tributes bring attention to BHC and their impact on the nation.
“It’s not taught in school, and it should be because it’s part of our history,” Falk said. “I think more than half of Canada is probably populated with descendants.”