Monday, 6 February 2012

Who will speak for the British Home Children of Canada?

I have mixed feelings about the need for Governments to apologise for acts done in their name or on their watch when those events have long since passed from living memory.

The opponents of such apologies tend to distort the argument by citing ancient acts of wrong doing from Herod’s massacre of the Innocents to the murder of the small Jewish community in York in 1190. Who after all could be held responsible? Not only is there no one who could in anyway be linked to such acts but the very systems of government around at the time have long since vanished.

More recent crimes are no less easy to deal with. In most cases successor Governments had nothing to do with those past events and apologies do not allow those who suffered to escape from being seen as victims. How much better then to follow the South African policy of truth and reconciliation which has been a brave way of coming to terms with the years of oppression and apartheid.

But I think this is to miss the point. It is not so much about saying sorry as allowing those who suffered to feel that their lives and experiences were important and deserve more than a footnote in a history book.

That is why I was pleased that the British and Australian Governments apologised for the way that thousands of our children were taken from Britain and placed in Canada and Australia. Many may have had better lives as a result and made great contributions to their adopted countries, but few had much say in what happened to them. They paid the price for the fact that the biggest and richest world empire could not look after them, and chose instead to let a group of individuals and organisations solve the problem of child poverty by taking them elsewhere.

As Gordon Brown said in the House of Commons in 2010,

"To all those former child migrants and their families, to those here with us today and those across the world, to each and every one, I say we are truly sorry.
We are sorry that instead of caring for them, this country turned its back. And, we're sorry that the voices of these children were not always heard, their cries for help not always heeded. And we're sorry that it's taken so long for this important day to come and for the full and unconditional apology that is justly deserved. “

Now the same people who oppose such apologies will argue that it was a different time and under different rules, except there were plenty of people at the time from socialists and trade unionists to middle class reformers who criticised the way capitalism tolerated such poverty as an essential part of the system.

Sadly for my great uncle and most of the children shifted off to Canada it is all too late. The last that went across in the late 1920s will be very old. Most of them never talked about their lives as British Home Children and so the stories of who they were, how they got to Canada and their early childhood experiences are in danger of being lost.

Some of us have begun to do our own personal research and storytelling. In my case I have been helped by the growing network of others doing the same thing, and by the Library and Archive of Canada, as well people over here.

But even with online facilities it is not easy and costs which is why I applaud the campaign to get the Canadian Government to help with funding the research.

I am hopeful, after all it did designate 2010 as the Year of the British Home Child, and I am assured that there are study opportunities in Canadian schools for exploring the history of British Home Children.

All of which makes their decision not to offer an apology a little bizarre and all the more important that it honours the memory of the 100,000 or so children who were settled in Canada with help in telling their stories.

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