Mr. Speaker, it is with much emotion that I rise in the House to speak about the British home children.
When I was young and full of enthusiasm, I studied history. What I like about history is that the more we learn about it, the more we realize how much we do not know. Every day, we learn something new about our history.
About two months ago, I was sitting in the House and listening closely to the speech given by my colleague from Stormont—Dundas—South Glengarry. That is when I discovered the very moving story of the British home children. I thought I knew my country's history, but I realized that I knew very little. This is a story that is intertwined with the the history of Canada in the 20th century, and even a little before that. Between 1869 and 1948, 100,000 children left Britain for Canada and Australia. One hundred thousand children arrived in Canada.
Who were these children? They were orphans, street kids, abandoned children. As with anything else, things born of good intentions sometimes end badly.
When the British home children program was created in the 19th century, the idea was to literally remove children, some of them two or three years old or even younger, from the miserable conditions they were living in, many of them on the streets of London, and take them to the glorious promised land of Canada.
For many of them, it was a dream come true. They were welcomed by farm families, they grew up, they went to school, they were cared for. Later, they started their own families and had descendants. For others, it was a tragedy of the highest order. Some were taken in by families that did not mean well, people who exploited them as slave labour on their farms. These people gave them the bare minimum they needed to survive, neglected their education and social life, and fed them just enough to keep them useful on the farm, literally turning them into slaves.
Over the years, 100,000 English children were brought to this country. Now here is a sobering thought: we estimate that nearly 10% of the current Canadian population is descended from those children. That brings it home. Those children were their great-grandfathers, their great-grandmothers, their ancestors five or six generations back who came to live here, and many of them have been forgotten.
I love my country, and I love its history, which I have studied extensively, but I did not know about this chapter in our history until I heard my colleague talk about it in the House. I am not exaggerating when I say that since then, I have thought of those children almost constantly. Nothing moves me more than the story of unhappy children.
Let us look at the reality of the situation now. Today, there are millions of Canadians who are descended from these men and women who were torn from their homeland as children to come live here, many of whom suffered, some of whom were nonetheless successful. Their sixth-, seventh- and even eighth-generation descendants are with us today. These are proud people. They contribute to our country today, just as their ancestors did, despite the challenges they may have faced. That is why we must celebrate the successes of those children, and especially their descendants, who contribute to the wealth and growth of our country. We can be proud of our ancestors, especially when we know that our ancestors may have suffered terrible human tragedies and hopelessness. People are incredibly resilient.
Life made sure that this courage, this tenacity, this will to survive was passed down from one generation to the next, and today there are millions of Canadians who are the descendants of those abandoned children who came here to Canada to contribute to the prosperity and growth of this country.
Yes, the descendants can be proud of their ancestors who have been helping to build this country for generations. Yes, they can be proud.
In a way, we are all the product of our ancestors. We were not around when our great-grandparents decided to settle down, here for some, elsewhere for others, but we should all be proud of our own personal roots. Sometimes the past includes horror stories. Maybe our ancestors were criminals. Maybe our ancestors were lunatics, or maybe they experienced tragedy, but life goes on.
This is a legacy that must be preserved, that we must all know and teach our children. Every story deserves to be heard. About 40 years ago, Alex Haley wrote the book Roots, which told the story of his great-great-great-grandfather, Kunta Kinte, who was taken from his native village of Juffureh in 1767 and sold into slavery in America. Seven generations later, that man's story was told and broadcast on television in the famous series Roots, which we called Racines in French. Tens of millions of African-Americans finally had a name, an image, a reality for telling their story.
Sadly, the British home children may at one time have been embarrassed by their story, uncomfortable with the reality they experienced, unwilling to boast about the challenges they overcame to succeed and settle here, have a family with generations to follow, but today, their descendants can be extraordinarily proud of their ancestors.
They managed to overcome all these challenges and grow up despite the pain they endured and the indignity they suffered at the hands of certain authorities who either turned a blind eye or encouraged the crime of exploiting children on a farm. That is clearly a crime regardless of whether we are talking about the 19th century or the 20th century.
The courage of these people is to be commended. They should not be embarrassed or ashamed of what happened. On the contrary, they should be proud. The best way to be proud of one's ancestors is to live the life we were given, carry on the extraordinary legacy of our ancestors and teach it to future generations.
Everyone has their own story with its share of pain. A painful family history need not dictate how one lives one's life. Rather, that history should be a source of inspiration to do greater things, become even stronger, rise up and proudly embrace one's truth. What I am saying is quite philosophical, but there are words, and then there is reality. Some four million Canadians are descendants of the children who ended up here because of painful circumstances but who went on to help Canada prosper and succeed.
Better still, there are people right here in this House who are descended from the British children we are paying tribute to today. Through those descendants, we honour the hundreds of thousands of children who came here and helped build this great nation.