Mr. Speaker, may I begin by complimenting my colleague from Stormont—Dundas—South Glengarry and thanking him very sincerely for the time and effort he has put into his motion. I am very hopeful that we will have unanimous consent at some point in the future to be able to celebrate September 28 as a day of recognition.
I have spoken several times on this British home children issue. I have read several books on it, especially ones published recently. There is no way one can read about the lives of some of these children without being reduced to tears. They tell stories of so many children suffering. Although some were successful, and some placed in homes with people who treated them as an additional member of the family, some of the children were in homes where they were simply day labourers, abused, and not treated the way the program had intended. However, I will elaborate a bit further as I go forward.
I am honoured to be able to stand here today to acknowledge this little-known chapter in Canadian history and to recognize the contributions of the British home children and their descendants. I hope that this is the beginning of many debates and discussions that we will have in this House, as we move forward with this particular item that many of us care about.
Though the child migration scheme was touted as a golden opportunity for children facing extreme poverty in Great Britain, it has since become clear that many of the program's participants were subjected to great abuse and severe hardship. We can only imagine that when the scheme was thought up, the children were already suffering immensely and living on the streets. The idea was to find a home for them. I think the intentions were good, but the oversight and assistance that should have been there were lacking.
In Canada, children were rarely adopted in the modern sense. More often, they were taken on as indentured labourers and cheap domestic help.
Though each story we hear is different, whether of a male or female, the separation of so many families was predominant. We now know that the scheme regularly amounted to nothing short of a betrayal, such as when temporary dislocation for a child became permanent, when children were separated, and ultimately when families were tom apart.
More than 100,000 unaccompanied children made the journey to Canada in the hopes of a better life. Though it remains difficult to fathom the courage that the children must have had, today we can salute them for what they endured on our behalf, both as they grew in a strange new land, and later as they fought in the two world wars on our behalf.
As a former minister of immigration, I had the pleasure and challenge of overseeing the government department responsible not only for immigration, but also for refugees and citizenship. People from all over the world journey to our shores. It strikes me that the diverse stories of the British home children are as relevant today as they were then.
In a rapidly changing world, they remind us that we are all, in our own ways, newcomers. As such, we remained united by the Canadian promise of safety and prosperity, and mindful that the wealth of our country derives in part from the diversity and tenacity of the citizens, like the British home children who travelled from afar seeking home, a safe place to live, food every day, and most importantly, an opportunity to grow.
Today, we have a long overdue opportunity to acknowledge the critical role these children played in the early stage of Canada's development as a nation. We owe it to these children and their families to tell their stories.
When we look at the farm fields all across Canada, we need to think of those children that were paid next to nothing to till those farms, and how much they contributed to our economic growth and our prosperity.
Not only did they help to build this land, they helped defend our country's freedom. It is estimated that 10,000 of these children fought for Canada in the first world war. In reading some of the books that have been written and elaborated on, some of them made the decision to go to war, for it was a better alternative than the way they were living on farms, and how they were treated as nothing short of slave labourers. For some of them, going to war was a better option.
I ask members to think of that, and how those children must have suffered, but they put on the uniform, and fought for us. They defended our country, and for that we should always be grateful. Many also fought in the second world war, along with descendants of those who arrived in the early years of the immigration schemes, and yet, so many Canadians are unaware of this history.
One of my staff members is a descendant of the British home children. That is how I was introduced to this issue. I did not know about this. I did not learn about this in history class. It was here on Parliament Hill when one of my assistants talked about British home children, and she shared that story with me.
Once we learn about it, there is no way we cannot care about it, and deny it. I am very happy to see that we passed a motion some time last year, which did not get enough attention, as my colleague mentioned earlier. Today, trying to move my hon. colleague's motion forward is a fabulous move to name September 28 as a day that we would all get united, and a day of recognition. We need to learn from the mistakes of the past, because no one knows what is coming tomorrow. We should try our best to learn that.
Canada designated 2010 as the Year of the British Home Child in Canada to ensure Canadians would be better informed about this chapter in our history, and by commemorating a yearly day that our government would ensure it would continue to raise awareness of the history and experiences of British home children and their descendants.
Canada has supported a number of outreach commemorative and educational initiatives to recognize the experience of the home children, including the designation of a national historic event and the establishment of a commemorative plaque. We will continue to support former British home children and their descendants, and to raise awareness about their experience.
Somehow no matter what we do, it never feels like it is enough. How do we say we are sorry? How do we say we had the best intentions as a country? We can never say sorry enough, and there are never enough ways to make up for the damage that was done to many of these children.
I salute my colleague and thank him for bringing this forward. I look forward to standing in the House to support the September 28 day. Again, I congratulate and thank him for the opportunity to speak to this motion.