When author Sandra Joyce first learned that her grandmother had effectively orphaned her father and sent him to live in Canada from Britain because she “lost interest”, she was profoundly disturbed.
But when she did more research into the story of home children, who were sent to Commonwealth countries from Britain to alleviate a labour shortage, she had mixed emotions.
“I was really surprised when I heard that about my grandmother, but I don’t blame her,” Joyce said. “I don’t know how hard it was for her to try and raise two children alone.”
The idea of sending children to Canada from the late 1860s to the 1930s is chronicled in Joyce’s book The Street Arab, which she recently presented at the Riverdale Historical Society.
The title is in reference to the derogatory term people would use to label vagrants, especially youth.
“They were called other, worse names too,” Joyce explained. “I couldn’t call the book that though, so I chose The Street Arab.”
The novel, about a boy named Robbie who is sent to Canada from Scotland after the First World War, is basely loosely on Joyce’s father’s life.
Joyce first stumbled upon the story by accident, when her sister found a passenger list while working for Citizenship and Immigration Canada.
She saw her father’s name, with the number 15 next to it, and her uncle’s name, with the number 12. She later learned these represented their ages when they were sent over.
Upon further research, she discovered the following: “The mother of this child was divorced on the 14th of February 1919, and since then has lost interest in her children of marriage and the children are not getting the care or attention required.”
If that wasn’t enough, she found out she had an aunt she never knew about, and that unbeknownst to Joyce, her grandmother was alive.
“I don’t know if my father thought she was dead, or if someone told him she was dead, but he always said she passed away,” she said. “And she was alive until 1987.”
While the discovery created more questions for Joyce, such as why her grandparents divorced, it also provided insights into her father’s strange behaviour.
“He did have a terrible problem showing emotion,” she said. “If he was upset, he would withdraw, to the point where he wouldn’t speak to anyone, at all.”
Joyce believes it wasn’t because he was abused, treated badly or neglected.
“Even though it was a well-maintained place and they were fed properly … they just grew up without love,” she said.
The Beach author decided to share the harrowing story because she believes too few Canadians know the tale of British home children.
“I thought I have to tell people about this,” she said. “We have to know where we came from and this is not the history that’s getting taught in our school system.”
According to Joyce, approximately 1 in 10 Canadians can trace their ancestry back to home children, including CBC broadcaster Don Cherry and St. Paul’s MPP Eric Hoskins.
“There’s lots of prominent people out there whose ancestors were home children,” she said. “And that’s shaped us.”
The extensive research Joyce undertook also revealed more about the place she calls home, the Beach.
“What really surprised me and shocked me was that there was a group that called themselves the Swastikas, and there were clashes between Jewish immigrants and (other) immigrants, along the Beach,” she said. “It was a huge story and a big problem for a while.”
Joyce, who grew up in Leslieville and attended Riverdale Collegiate Institute, said she decided to write a fiction book to appeal to more people. She said while non-fiction books tend to be read by those interested in the subject, she hopes more people will be able to connect to the story of a young boy going through an extraordinary struggle.
“It is a story that I think needs to be told,” she said. “It’s a sad story, but it’s a story that we as Canadians need to know.”