January 02, 2013

New Homechild production recalls a shameful era

As published in The Erin Advocate

Erin playwright and composer Barb Perkins continues to have success in her quest to both entertain and educate Canadians with her story about British Home Children – a part of our history that needs to be better known.

"I'm just thrilled that the word is getting out," said Perkins, who is helping Orangeville Music Theatre with a new production of Homechild – The Musical, which premiered in Erin in 2005.

Back in 1984, she learned that her grandmother and three of her eight siblings had arrived in Canada from Wales in 1907 as "home children", and she later travelled to Wales to meet relatives and research the child emigration movement. She used her talents as a music teacher and songwriter to create a show that would capture more than just the historical story of a separated family.
"The music really brings out the emotion," she said.

The play had an extensive workshop at the Charlottetown Festival in 1999, but really came to life in Erin in 2005 with the help of Brett Girvin, Steve Sherry and Erin Community Theatre. There was broad community support to mount the first full production at Centre 2000.

Since then it has been produced at West End Studio Theatre in Oakville in 2009. Awareness of the history has grown, with Canada Post creating a special stamp to mark the Year of the British Home Child in 2010.

The play was produced again at Goya Theatre in Ottawa in 2011, and Ontario declared September 28 as the annual British Home Child Day. Now, Orangeville Music Theatre has taken it up close to home, with performances this month at the Town Hall Opera House on Broadway.

The show dates are January 12, 18, 19, 25 and 26 at 8:00 pm, and on Sunday afternoons, January 13 and 20 at 2:00 pm. Regular tickets are $20, with children 12 and under $15 (plus a box office fee). The box office can be reached at 519-942-3423, with on-line tickets available at www.orangevillemusictheatre.com. There is more information at www.homechildmusical.com.

The new production is directed by Raeburn Ferguson, with musical direction by Pam Claridge and choreography by Mariah Abbott, and will include some Erin talent, including Dick Murray, who acted in the 2005 show.

Starting January 9, Orangeville Library will be presenting a display of Homechild memorabilia including trunks and memorial quilts, as well as available books on the subject.

The stories of home children are particularly tragic because many were not orphans, but simply from poor families who thought they were doing the right thing by sending them to a land of opportunity – an escape from the social upheavals of the industrial revolution.

The agencies that set up the Child Migration schemes had good intentions, assuming that poor or orphaned children would have a better life in a new land that needed workers. The emigration undoubtedly saved some lives, and some children were fortunate to be taken in by kind families, but for many it was a life of unremitting hardship and abuse. Siblings were separated and any contact with the parents was strongly discouraged.

The practice gained popularity in the era of child poverty and workhouses made famous by Charles Dickens in novels such as Oliver Twist, and even though slavery had been abolished in England by then, the parallels with that particular evil are inescapable.

Some home children did commit crimes here, but many were falsely accused of criminal behaviour, denied access to basic education, and denounced by doctors, politicians, union leaders and newspaper writers as degenerates and carriers of disease.

Many were forced to work under terrible conditions. Some were severely beaten and systematically starved, while others were sexually abused. Some died as a result of their treatment, and others took their own lives.

Most survived and made lives for themselves in Canada. About 118,000 came here between 1833 and 1939, and it is now estimated that 12% of our population has a home child in their ancestry.

Like the abuse of aboriginal children in residential schools, the story of the home children is a shameful element of Canadian history that needs to be understood by future generations. Perkins said efforts are being made to include it in the Canadian History curriculum. To learn more go to www.britishhomechildren.org or www.canadianbritishhomechildren.weebly.com.

Famed psychiatrist Dr. C.K. Clarke (after whom Toronto's Clark Institute was named) campaigned relentlessly from the late 1800s until his death in 1924 against allowing "defective and insane" immigrants into Canada. Like many others, he believed home children were part of Great Britain's plan to ship sub-normal people out to the colonies.

The belief that "feeble-mindedness" was a hereditary problem was the basis of the eugenics movement that swept the world, and took particular hold in Alberta, where thousands of people were unjustly confined, stigmatized and sterilized between 1929 and 1972.

Is our modern society now morally superior to those earlier times when terrible injustices took place, or are we simply so affluent that we are not tempted into desperate measures?

If Canada were plunged into real poverty and chaos, would we have learned anything from our history? Or would we be as cruel and lacking in human decency as our ancestors?