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Friday, December 16, 2016

Tracing our roots to the home children of Eastern Ontario

We have tried tracing the roots of our blended family, to limited success. I mean, we know where we started and the journeys taken to get us where we are. But the meat of the stories, the memories and the tales, are not there. Not yet. I would like to get some more meaningful details to fill in the gaps.
There are websites that you can subscribe to that help you to trace your family history. One of the biggest is run by the Mormons – The Church of Latter Day Saints. They have records on family history like you wouldn’t believe. It’s pretty freaky to plug your great-grandfather’s name into the system and see him pop up on a ship’s registry, bringing him here from overseas. To start your family in Canada.
If you aren’t fully committed to writing your family history and you’re just curious about where your roots are planted, you can wait until one of those genealogy sites has a ‘free weekend’, which they do about twice a year. You will get a few details to get you started on building your family tree.
One of the best ways to get a rich family history recorded, of course, is to interview your elders. We European Canadians don’t have a traditional storytelling custom but perhaps we should. Wouldn’t it be cool to know why you love Spanish music or seafood – even though you live in a land-locked section of the Canadian Shield. Your roots might be in the Mediterranean – maybe your ancestors lived by the ocean.
On my side of the family tree, we know there is a County Cullen in Ireland, and there is a Leeson Street in Dublin. I’ve never been, but I’d love to see the Isle of Man where my grandmother’s family comes from.
The Fisher side of the family started with two home children. If your family started in Canada from the United Kingdom between 1869 and the late 1930’s, there is a good chance your branch of the family tree began with a home child.
The Home Children migration scheme, founded by Annie MacPherson in 1869, sent over 100,000 children to Canada, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand. In many cases the children were orphaned or born to poor families who could not afford to feed them. In some instances the children were in reform school, having been accused of such crimes as stealing bread, likely to feed their starving families. MacPherson worked with the poor and witnessed what amounted to child slavery in the matchbox industry of London.
There was a labour shortage in the colonies, and too many children in care of the state, so off they went. MacPherson honestly believed she was sending the children to a better fate, in lands of opportunity. Most of them never saw their families again. They endured the overseas voyage, landing in an unknown place, and were taken in by complete strangers. Most home children were given work on small farms. A great deal of them were given lodging in the barns, with the animals. Not many found a bed of their own in the farmhouse, where three square meals a day were served.
You can find a wealth of information online about the home children. It’s a history unimaginable to most of us – having to give your child up because you have no food for him – and then learning he has been sent overseas to labour on a farm. Many of these children were as young as 7 or 8 years old.
The distribution centres for these home children were in Belleville and Galt, Ontario and Knowlton in the Eastern Townships. There is a strong likelihood that many of our local families can trace their roots back to these children.
In the case of my husband’s family, their story in Canada began with a little boy from the UK who landed on a dock in the Maritimes. He was taken in by a farming family and spent his next few years in North Augusta – just about a fifteen minute drive through the countryside from our farm.
Filling in the gaps of his story will be difficult, as not everything was kept on record during those years. But it’s a valuable story to pass down through the generations, so we will try. Then our children and grandchildren will know where their independence, strength and fortitude comes from.

Home boy ploughing Dr. Barnardo's industrial farm, Russell, Manitoba, circa 1900

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