By Prof Sehdev Kumar
TORONTO: Who built Canada into a great country that it is today?
Labour Day is a celebration of the labour of millions in Canada and elsewhere who, through the sweat of their physical labour in construction, on land, in factories, on railroads, have given a sturdy body to a grand nation.
When, rightly, all over the world the exploitation of children as labourers (and as child soldiers and in sexual trafficking) is being condemned, one is tempted to ask what has been the role of children in the making of Canada.
In his book, The Little Immigrants, Kenneth Bagnell tells some heart-wrenching stories about some 100,000 children who were shipped to Canada from Britain’s streets, orphanages and poor houses from 1860s to 1930s, and worked in utter servitude in this country.
Many of these children were discarded by impoverished mothers in the most wretched slums of Charles Dickens’ most “melancholy England” of 19th century at the height of British imperialism.
Most of these children, many as young as 8 or 10, never saw another member of their family ever again. They worked as indentured servants or farm hands in Canada, for $1 a year (money held in trust until the contract was up; in most cases never paid), with most rudimentary food and shelter. Blatant abuse of these children was rampant.
Most of them worked from sunrise until dark, milking cows and tilling fields. Many never saw the inside of a church, let alone a school. When they did attend a school, teachers would complain that they wore no shoes, or coats, in the Canadian winter. Some slept in the barn or other outbuildings. Children were often beaten and girls were sexually molested. But they provided free workforce for a new generation of Canadians and for a new developing country.
In recognition of the Home Children’s courage, ingenuity, vision & contributions in this forgotten period in Canada’s history, the Canadian Parliament unanimously designated 2010 as the Year of the Home Child. As well, the Canadian Stamp Advisory Board of Canada issued a stamp in recognition of the Home Child.
For its part, Britain has officially apologized to surviving “home children” around the world; then-prime minister Gordon Brown said: “We are sorry that the voices of these children were not heard, that their cries for help were not heeded.”
Where in Canada are these ‘home children’ now?
Their children and grandchildren perhaps are now part of the Canadian mainstream, possibly quite oblivious to the ravages of history, moving on. It must, however, should be noted that the Children’s Aid Society was founded in Canada in 1853 by Charles Loring and a group of social reformers at a time when orphan asylums and almshouses were the only ‘social services’ to the poor and homeless in Canada.
Is Canada the same country in 2012 as it was a hundred years ago? How has the sanctity of life changed! And how does it compare elsewhere in other countries!
(Dr. Sehdev Kumar, Professor Emeritus at the University of Waterloo, now lectures at the University of Toronto on Bioethics and Science/Religion Dialogue. He is also Distinguished Professor of Culture & Communication in Himgiri Zee University in India. firstname.lastname@example.org)