How Netflix uncovered Canada’s Child Migrant Labour Forgotten Past

Chelsea Sauve

Our Secret History: Canada and Child Migrant Labour


As we sit around our dinner tables and discuss current affairs, we can expect debate and heated discussion about the benefits and fallbacks of various schemes. Should Canada engage ISIS with boots on the ground? Will Donald Trump win the Republican primary?

If we dine with a diverse crowd, we can expect a multiplicity of opinions, resulting in little consensus. However, should the dinner conversation touch upon the topic of child labour for example, it is almost certain that regardless of the political stripes around the table, there will be agreement in deeming the practice abhorrent and unacceptable.

So, what would you say if I told you that Canada has a history of accepting child migrant labour? What would you say if I told you that Canada refused to apologize for its role in this scheme?

Deep in the depths of Netflix ….

This holiday season, deep in the depths of Netflix, I came across a film called Oranges and Sunshine which depicts the story of the “home children” – a wave of forced child migration to Britain’s former colonies. The movie tells the story of Margaret Humphreys, a passionate social worker who discovers the “home children” phenomenon and subsequently commits her life and career to seeking justice for the “home children” and their families. The movie is focused on the reunification of parents and children, particularly those affected by the migration of children from the UK to Australia.

Soon after finishing this film, I decided that I needed to learn more about this piece of history, previously unknown to me and I quickly discovered Canada’s shameful role in this moment in history. My country, Canada, was one of the former British colonies that openly accepted many of these children for the purpose of child labour

Who are the “Home Children”?

The “home children” refers to a group of British children born to impoverished, vagrant and single parent households in England, who were taken by the British government and sent to live in in former British colonies including Canada, New Zealand, Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia) and Australia”. From 1896-1970 approximately 130,000 children between the ages of 3 and 14 were sent abroad, most often times deported without the consent or knowledge of their parents.

Child migration was central to the British childcare strategy, and was publicly founded in the notion that the “home children” would be better off living apart from their families of origin, away from the urban slums of Britain in British colonies abroad.

While seemingly benevolent in its incentive the reality was “seriously flawed” and maintained less altruistic motivations. While some “home children” were previously abandoned or orphaned, the majority of the “home children” were born to intact families. This leads one to question, how exactly the children wound up in the care of government?

How did the children come to be in the care of the UK Government?

During the Industrial Revolution many traditional, extended families were separated as people moved away from agrarian life to earn a living in urban centers relying instead upon nuclear families. In a time where disease was rampant and health care limited, family breadwinners often fell ill or died, leaving their children either without an immediate family to care for them, or without a means to make a living. In the absence of social assistance programs, families in this predicament were forced to relinquish their children to the British government.

This surrender to the government was intended to be a temporary solution while the family in question gathered means to care for their children. However, the government had an alternative agenda and when the majority of these parents returned to gather their children from the care of government, they discovered that their children had already been sent away. Testimony reveals that children in care of the government were told that their parents had died or abandoned them, while the parents were told that their children were adopted by families who could better care and provide for them.

Motivations of the Child Migration Scheme

Founded by Annie MacPherson in 1869, the child migration scheme was motivated by a web of incentives, including: providing a source of cheap labour to the farming industry in Canada, boosting Australia’s dwindling post-war population, and preserving white dominance in former Rhodesia (modern day Zimbabwe). The latter incentive, racial unity of the British Empire, was an overarching motivation of the scheme. This is evidenced by the intentional exclusion of handicapped and black children from the child migration strategy.

Presented as a scheme to address the overcrowding of urban centres, the child migration scheme began as a contract. This contract provided for the care of home children once they reached the new colony, detailing that they be housed, fed, clothed and educated. This scheme, akin to indentured servitude, would be discharged once the child reached the age of 18.

However, the reality of the program was altogether different.

Arrival in the Colonies: Canada’s Role

While the movie, Oranges and Sunshine depicts the migration of children from the UK to Australia, the movie fails to detail Canada’s role in accepting home children.

The British Home Children Advocacy and Research Association records indicate that between 1869 and 1948 over 100,000 of the 130,000 “home children” were sent to Canada. This staggering statistic reveals that Canada was the recipient of the majority of “home children”.  The result of this is that over 12% of the Canadian population, approximately 4 million people are descendants of the “home children” – many unaware of their heritage.

Abuse of the “Home Children”

Upon arrival to the former colonies, the “home children” were sent to live in homes that were run by the Catholic Church and various philanthropic organizations.

In Australia, there were 7000 child migrants, most of whom remained under institutional care led by the Catholic Church – children’s homes, institutions and orphanages. Testimony from the home children reveals that these homes were rampant with protracted sexual abuse and neglect.  In Canada, a different scheme founded in indentured farm worker and thus cheap labour, was followed.

Children were sent to Canada where they were accepted by well-known and presently functioning organizations such as Bernardo’s, The Salvation Army and Quarrier’s. These are only 3 of the over 50 charities that maintained an active role in facilitating child migration from the UK.  These organizations received the “home children” and functioned as distributing and receiving homes. One of such homes was in Fairknowe in Brockville, Ontario, Canada. It was these homes which arranged for the transfer of children to farmers in the area.

The “home children” were in high demand amongst Canadian farmers, with seven applications for every one child sent to Canada. While some of the “home children” were adopted and treated as children by the farmers who took them in, most children were exposed to protracted abuse and neglect, deprived of an education and proper nutrition. The monitoring of children’s placements was less rigorous than anticipated, and as a result many children were left in abusive situations wherein their care was abandoned, and education non-existent. Siblings were separated, and boys and girls alike were exposed to harsh labour conditions. Other children ran away, while some died from ill-health or injuries resulting from neglect and abuse, others from suicide.

The result is thus clear that whatever the initial intention of the “home children” program, the welfare of the children was ultimately not of paramount importance.


To date, England is the only country in the world with a sustained history of child migration.

In 2009, the Government of Australia issued an apology for its role in facilitating to the “home children” program and in 2010, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued a general apology to all “home children” and their families for the UK’s role in facilitating the program. To date, Canada has refused to issue a formal apology for their involvement in the child migration scheme.

This refusal to apologize is premised in a belief that efforts to commemorate the “home children”, such as marking 2010 the year of the British Home Child (as initiated by a private members bill) and the issuing of a commemorative stamp are sufficient recognition of the “home children” and suffice in lieu of a formal apology.  When questioned about this, former Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, Jason Kenney, suggested that the “home children” are not on the political radar of the Canadian public.

Mr. Kenney stated that “Canadians don’t expect their government to apologize for every sad event in our history….The issue has not been on the radar screen here (unlike Australia where there’s been a “long-standing interest” in the issue)…. [there is] limited public interest in official government apologies for everything that’s ever been unfortunate or tragic event in our history.”

Not shockingly however, victims of the “home children” program feel quite differently. Sidney Baker, leader of the organization Home Children Canada, has suggested that he and other home children expect an apology from the Canadian government. And I would suspect that others might feel the same way should they be exposed to Canada’s involvement in this dark period of history.

Teach me… Netflix?

For years, society has relied upon the arts to teach, through theatre, documentaries, poetry and dance, communicating history through a creative and compelling lens. My grandfather has always taught me that life is one long lesson – in your relationships, in your profession, in your passions. Perhaps Netflix is the next frontier through which our generation will discover moments in history?

Now I have a question for you.

Are there other moments in history that escape the purview of our school curricula? What other moments of history do we, as a society, remain ignorant towards?

So get out your popcorn, and make it a night in. We have some history to learn.