OTTAWA — There’s no need for Canada to apologize for abuse and exploitation suffered by thousands of poor children shipped here from Britain starting in the 19th century, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney said Monday.
Australia apologized Monday for its part in the mistreatment of the so-called home children, and the British government has announced it will issue a formal apology next year.
Kenney said he supports a private member’s motion to declare 2010 the year of the home child, in remembrance of the “sad period” in Canadian history. Canada Post is planning a commemorative stamp and a number of federal museums have launched exhibits about the tragedy.
But he said that should be sufficient.
“The issue has not been on the radar screen here,” Kenney said, unlike Australia where there’s been a “long-standing interest” in the issue.
“The reality is that here in Canada we are taking measures to recognize that sad period, but there is, I think, limited public interest in official government apologies for everything that’s ever been unfortunate or (a) tragic event in our history.
“And we’ve laid out some pretty clear criteria for where such apologies would be appropriate and on a limited basis.”
Kenney said the issue is primarily a matter of “British policy” and no one in Canada is asking for an apology.
In fact, Home Children Canada had been hoping the Canadian government would follow the example set by Australia and Britain.
“I’m very disappointed,” said spokesman Sydney Baker.
“We’ve got four million Canadians who are descendants of the home children and I think they deserve an apology for what their parents went through.”
From 1869 to 1939, an estimated 100,000 orphaned or abandoned youngsters were taken off the streets of Britain and sent to Canada and other former British colonies with the promise of a better life.
Many were abused physically and mentally or put to work as child labourers.
The children were typically sent to the colonies without the consent or knowledge of their parents. Some studies have suggested more than two-thirds were abused by their patrons in Canada.
Canadians first learned of the child migrant program when a young labourer — emaciated and covered in sores and scars — died at an Ontario farm in 1895 only seven months after arriving from England.
A spate of suicides among home children in the early 1920s led to an eventual ban on charities bringing children under the age of 14 into Canada.
In Australia, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd apologized Monday for the treatment of home children in his country.
“We are sorry. Sorry that as children you were taken from your families and placed in institutions where so often you were abused,” Rudd said.
“Sorry for the physical suffering, the emotional starvation and the cold absence of love, of tenderness, of care. Sorry for the tragedy — the absolute tragedy — of childhoods lost.”
Baker said he can’t understand the Canadian government’s reluctance to issue a similar apology. He noted that Prime Minister Stephen Harper formally apologized to aboriginal Canadians who suffered abuse in residential schools.
“This is the same thing,” he said, adding that his group is not seeking any compensation.
However, Kenney maintained apologies for past wrongs need to be meted out sparingly and it wasn’t just the home children who were rebuffed.
Kenney also rejected a demand by New Democrat MP Pat Martin to reverse Louis Riel’s 1885 conviction for high treason and recognize him instead as a founder of Manitoba, a father of Confederation and a champion of Metis rights.
Kenney said Riel, who was hanged for treason, was a “complicated figure” — revered by the Metis but viewed as a threat to Canada’s sovereignty by others. And he said it’s not up to the government to settle that historical debate.
“We acknowledge the important role of Louis Riel in Canadian history. But, you know, the government of Canada can’t reach back in time and undo decisions that were made over a century ago.”