A few years after her father’s death, Sandra Joyce was on a visit to Halifax. She stopped by Pier 21 to check if they had records of her father’s arrival in Canada.
“It says here: ‘Orphan Homes of Scotland’,” the English teacher says, now pointing to a copy of the document that changed her family history. “I never knew he was an orphan.”
It was a discovery that would lead to publishing a book and travelling halfway across the world.
The Street Arab: The Story of a British Home Child is Joyce’s first novel. Based on her father’s life, it tells the story of one of the 100,000 orphans that Britain sent to Canada between 1869 and 1939.
Joyce spoke to members of the East York Historical Society on Jan. 31 at the S. Walter Stewart library branch. Though the characters are fictional, her book sticks closely to the history of home children. The novel took Joyce four years of research and a trip to the Scottish orphan house where her father lived.
“It’s very rewarding, but also the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” Joyce said.
Faced with crowded orphan houses following the First World War, Britain created a scheme, in connection with Canada’s agriculture department, to send young labourers to the sparsely populated colony. Some were sent over in boats that shipped Canadian timber to Britain, since they were empty for return routes.
The children, who mostly came from large cities, were sent to rural Canada to work as domestic or farm labourers. Seen as “deviants” on both sides of the Atlantic, the children had several derogatory nicknames.
One term, the inspiration for the title of Joyce’s book, comes from a quote in Anne of Green Gables: “No London street Arabs for me…. I’ll feel easier in my mind and sleep sounder at nights if we get a born-Canadian.”
Government monitors were only interested in whether farmers were satisfied with the children’s behaviour — while many children suffered isolation and abuse. The program was finally ended after a number of suicides.
“It was luck of the draw. Some had terrible lives, some got lucky,” said Joyce. “But really, what they didn’t have was love in their lives.”
She recalls growing distant from her father and says many descendants of home children never got to know their family members and their history.
“These children were not able to form relationships very easily. While I was a child he was very sweet, but as I got older he grew away from me,” Joyce said. “I feel like I was robbed of that side of my family.”
Although she was told from birth that her grandmother was dead, Joyce found out that she had actually died in 1985. In her research, she even came across a photograph of the dozen children who arrived in Canada from the same orphanage in 1925.
“I have scanned it over and over — and I still don’t know which is my father.”
Joyce, who is working on a sequel to her first novel, is pushing for awareness of this episode of history. Her book’s foreword is written by MPP Jim Brownell, whose grandmother was a home child from the same Scottish orphanage. With Joyce’s help, he enacted an annual British Home Child Day. Her book launched on the inaugural commemoration, on Sept. 28, 2011.
Estimates say roughly 10 per cent of Canadians descend from home children. Britain had smaller child emigration schemes with Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Within the past decade, Australia and the United Kingdom have apologized, but Canada has only issued a statement of “regret.”
“That made me angry and motivated me even more,” Joyce said. “As Canadians we tend to think of ourselves as advocates of human rights and freedom. And here we were doing things to children not so long ago. So how can we point the finger at other countries?”