TORONTO — Television personality Don Cherry lent his support Monday to a ceremony honouring the First World War service of British Home Children, a group that formed a little-known and often sordid chapter of Canadian history.
About 118,000 British children — one was Cherry’s maternal grandfather and war vet, Richard Palamountain — were shipped to Canada between 1869 and 1948 to work as indentured farm hands and domestic servants.
The abuses many suffered in Canada were horrific. One of them, Arthur Clarkson, who arrived as a nine year old, was horse-whipped and made to live in an unheated barn, almost costing him his frost-bitten lower limbs.
“It’s really heart-breaking to hear some of the stories. These kids were actually slaves,” Cherry told The Canadian Press.
“They had to sign something for so many years and most of them didn’t know what they were signing.”
Almost every one of the home children in Canada at the time — about 10,000 — signed up to serve during the Great War that began 100 years ago, including Cherry’s grandpa. More than one-thousand died in action, most at the bloody battle at Vimy Ridge. Many had no one to mourn them. Others died without notification to their relatives.
The commemorative ceremony and exhibition called “Breaking the silence: Stories of the British Home Children” at Black Creek Pioneer Village aims to change the often overlooked contribution and sacrifice to the war effort made by the home children.
Among the artifacts on display are letters from the front and the signal flags Clarkson used.
“My father talked about waking up in the night with a blanket of snow over the bottom half of his body,” said Clarkson’s daughter Linda Pagnami, who came with her sister from Detroit for the ceremony.
“His feet were deformed. Terrible, terrible abuse.”
It was only while doing a television show called “Who do you think you are?” a few years ago that Cherry, now 80, learned of his link to Palamountain, an orphan sent to Quebec at age 12 after his family in the U.K. fell on hard times, and about the home children phenomenon.
“Most people don’t know about it. People say, ’What the heck is that?”’ Cherry said. “To tell the truth, I didn’t know either.”
“If it was any other race but the British, there’d be an awful outcry, but because they were British…”
Palamountain somehow transferred to the Royal Military College as a horse groomer, then enlisted as a 31-year-old during the First World War and served at Vimy Ridge before returning to Canada.
Also on hand for the ceremony was George Beardshaw, 90, who came over as a 14-year-old in 1938 mistakenly thinking he was an orphan and would be a cowboy in Canada. His brother was already here.
“I was at school one day and they said, ’How many boys would like to go to Canada?’ So I stuck up my hand.”
Beardshaw spent five years working on a mixed farm in Ontario, forbidden from doing simple things such as going to a movie. He tried a few times to leave, but was always returned. At 19, he left and enlisted, serving overseas during the Second World War and finding his mother in Britain.
Also unveiled during the ceremony was an “honour role” plaque bearing the names of the known home children who died in the First World War.