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St. John River: Home Children

Tragic chapter in our immigration history

More on the St. John River:
St. John River:
The Good and the Bountiful

Cargo of Misery:
Disease and death stalk desperate newcomers

Company Town:
Boss Gibson's Marysville

Natural delicacy of the river valley

Fir Trade:
Forests are vital to New Brunswick's economy

Fries to Go:
Fast food for the world

Home Children:
Tragic chapter in our immigration history

Big Noise:
Foghorn is invented for Partridge Island

Return Flight:
Bald eagles recover old nesting sites

The Sand and the Fury:
The complex ecology of the Fundy tides

Starting Over:
Loyalists seek refuge from revolution

Vive la République !:
The unique cultural mélange of Madawaska

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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