A Red Deer author has spun a family revelation into a heart-breaking tale of Britain’s “Home Children” in Canada.
That was the name given to the youngsters, taken from families often living in poverty and shipped to Canada to serve as farm help.
It is estimated more than 100,000 children crossed the Atlantic to Canada from the 1860s to the 1920s. Many others ended up in South Africa and Australia.
The practice only ended in Canada when a series of suicides prompted authorities to ban charities bringing in children under the age of 14.
Brad Barnes’s The Reluctant Canadian: Inspired by the True Story of a Canadian Home Child is a fictionalized imagining of the life of his grandfather, Sid Barnes, who was sent to Canada in 1914 as an eight-year-old as part of the Child Immigration Scheme.
The novel started out as a family history, inspired by the discovery in 1992 of Sid’s background. Brad’s father George knew little of his father who had left the family when George was still a baby.
George would meet his father, and Brad his grandfather, briefly in 1993.
They spent a few wordless minutes in a Princeton, B.C. hospital room, where Sid died a few hours later.
Intrigued by his grandfather’s hidden past, Brad began researching.
His sleuthing led him to a British charity founded by Dr. Thomas John Barnardo in 1866, to care for destitute children, and which had taken Sid in when he was five years old.
Through its records, he found Sid was one of three sons in a London family, left homeless and poverty-stricken by the death of the father from pneumonia in 1911.
Two of the boys would end up in Canada as farm helpers. The third boy, who was physically disabled and wore a leg brace, remained in England, likely because he was considered unfit for farm work.
Records show Sid bounced around through nearly a dozen different families before ending up in Saskatchewan as a young man. There, he married and had children including Brad’s father.
Uncovering his grandfather’s story, and those of thousands of other Home Children, was an affecting experience for Brad, 57, who works for the Correctional Service of Canada and is a former journalist and photojournalist.
“Horrific stories. The overall topic of the Home Children was something that was shocking for me.
“I’d never heard of it before, and most people hadn’t,” he said.
“It was under the auspices of philanthropy. But really what they were doing was just supplying farm hands.
“These kids were basically just child slaves.”
Brad said despite his efforts to pull together as much information as he could, he realized there were too many unknowns to create a full account of his grandfather’s life. So, he began thinking about trying to recreate the past through research and imagination, using as a foundation what he knew about his grandfather. It turned into a 280-page, often sad fictionalized story about Sidney’s life in Canada.
Barnes began writing in 2009, and the project he originally expected to take a few weeks was finished three years later. He sent the book to a few publishers with no bites before finding self-publishing house Friesen Press, out of Victoria, B.C.
Barnes hopes more people learn the story of the Home Children, and he supports ongoing efforts to convince Canada to follow Australia’s and Britain’s lead and officially apologize for its part in the mistreatment of the youngsters.
The Reluctant Canadian is available at www.friesenpress.com ($26.99 hardcover or $17.99 paperback) or through Amazon and Barnes and Noble and at Coles and Chapters in Red Deer.
Barnes will be signing copies of his book at the following locations:
• March 16 – Coles, Parkland Mall, Red Deer, noon to 4 p.m.
• March 17 – Chapters, 5250 22 St, Red Deer, noon to 4 p.m.
• March 23 – Chapters, 66 Crowfoot Terrace, Calgary, noon to 5 p.m.
• March 24 – Indigo, CrossIron Mills Mall, noon to 5 p.m.