St. John River: Home Children
Tragic chapter in our immigration history
Saint John was the scene for one of the most shameful chapters of Canadian
labour and immigration history. In 1826, a London police magistrate named Robert
Chambers concluded that there were too many poor children in the English
capital. These victims of their parents' hopeless lives, became homeless, street
urchins who slept in the gutter and roamed the streets.
Chambers recommended that the "surplus" youngsters be sent to Canada as domestic and farm
labour. Canada was considered to be a place where these children would find a "better life" -
a promise which was often not fulfilled.
Thomas John Barnardo was a principal figure in this policy. He set up "refuge" centres in
London where 30,000 unfortunate children were rounded up and shipped to Canada over the following
decades. Once in Canada, they often ended up on farms, doing hard labour for nothing but
poor food and a rough bed.
These young servants, who were more like indentured slaves, were sometimes victims of severe
abuse and died without official notice. They were usually not adopted and were rarely paid
the allowance that was to be set aside for their education. What's more, if a child was deemed
less than fit, strong, agreeable, and intelligent, that child could be sent back to Britain.
By the turn of the century, a whole child labour industry had sprung up, with dozens of
organizations involved in shipping youngsters overseas. Most of the children were eight to
16 years old, but some were as young as four years of age.
It was only by the 1920s that the morality of child immigration was put into question. The
numbers of immigrant children began to decline, and opposition to the immigrant child labour
program mounted. The Canadian economy began to weaken, and consequently the demand for cheap
child labour simply dwindled.
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