Thursday, 21 June 2012

They spoke for the children sent to Canada

Yesterday I reflected on the great debate about the correctness of sending our children to Canada.  

There are those that maintain that they did go to a better life, and that the motives of those engaged in the policy was driven by the best possible motives.  All of which  I have explored, describing  the conditions in Britain during the last quarter of the 19th century and the absence on the part of the State to intervene in meaningful way.

But the evidence is stacking up that many didn’t enjoy the warm sunlit uplands that they should have been entitled to, instead for some there was hardship loneliness and long hours of work compounded in a few cases with cruelty and abuse.

Of course much hangs on the degree to which there was knowledge at the time that things were not going right.  Many of the supporters of the policy derided and rubbished the reports of neglect and abuse, explaining them away as exceptions to the rule and mistakes which had been made in the early period of settlement.

This will not wash any more.  In the first decade of the last century a small band of socialist Guardians on the Chorlton Union argued the case against sending children from our work house to Canada citing evidence and making a principled stand.

They pointed to the long hours and lack of schooling that was the lot of many of the children which as they argued contravened our own child protection laws and above all was an abrogation of our duty to solve the problem here in Britain.

Now the research is in its early stages but I can do no worse than quote from their letters and their speeches which were all reported in the Manchester Guardian.

Speaking at a meeting of the Guardians in 1910, Catherine Garrett had said

“they were not fighting particular cases but the general principle of sending out children to another country to live and to be employed there under conditions which were illegal in their own land.  In some cases children of seven were being sent out by boards of Guardians.”

And laying aside the principle it was the simple exploitation of the young people in their care that drove William Skivington to hammer away at the issues from 1907 onwards.

“First British children from Poor Law Unions and philanthropic institutions emigrated to Canada were sent to work for their livelihood at an age which would not be tolerated in this country.  Next, these children, not being adopted, were being hired for work; they were received in Canada only because child labour was allowed there, and hence they had seven applications for every child; that for children from seven years of age the conditions denoted forced labour, not voluntary or free ; that being employed or hired work they were robbed of their childhood and of the opportunity of a sound education and that emigration of young children for working purposes savoured of traffic in child labour carried on between agencies in this country and agencies in Canada.  Children would not be allowed to go from the care of the Guardians to anything like such conditions in this country.”

Sadly they were still in a minority and every attempt to reverse the policy was defeated.  But what I think is important is that even at the time there were those who were uncomfortable at the policy of sending children to Canada and had the evidence to cast doubt on the optimistic view that we were sending these young people to a better life.

Picture;from the collection of Lori Oschefski

Sources; from the Manchester Guardian 1907-1910

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