Canada’s Home Children and the Seeds of a Story

Anne of Green Gables is one of my favourite literary heroines. What’s not to like about the plucky orphan who touched everyone’s hearts while getting up to all sorts of creative mischief? When my husband and I holidayed on Prince Edward Island in 2012, we visited all the ‘Anne’ sites—Green Gables, The Lake of Shining Waters, Lucy Maud Montgomery’s house and more.

Nola at Avonlea Village, 2012

However, it was at Avonlea Village that I made an interesting discovery that planted the seeds for my novel Scattered. In a tourist park dedicated to Canada’s most famous fictional orphan, I came across a memorial sign commemorating the life of John Willoughby, a volunteer at Avonlea Village who had helped the descendants of real-life orphans. I was intrigued by the following words on the sign:

‘John devoted much of his later years to the development of awareness of the plight of the Home Children who were shipped to Canada in the late 1800s and early 1900s to work on farms. He is responsible for the reunification of many descendants with their families.’

Sign at Avonlea Village

I’d never heard of the Home Children, but I snapped a picture of the sign so I would remember to look it up when I got home. I later found that the Home Children Migrant Program ran from the late 1860s to the 1930s, with over 100 000 children being sent from England to Canada to work on farms or in domestic service. At the time, this was seen as a humanitarian cause. England had many orphans and street urchins who had fallen on hard times, and Canada needed help on the farms that were spreading out across the country. It seemed like the perfect solution.

While some children did find a better life in Canada and were adopted into kind families, many were treated like the hired help. Some were abused and some were separated from siblings. Today, organisations like the British Home Children Advocacy and Research Association are still helping people to find out about their ancestors and reunite with relatives. 

One reason this story resonates with me is that I have an English birthmother who died before I started searching for her. She had already moved to Australia before having me, and I’m sure she made the best decision in what must have been a very difficult time for her. It turned out well, as I was adopted into a family who loved and nurtured me. However, my life could have turned out very differently ‘there but for the grace of God’. I’ve since reunited with English relatives, but many people in the same situation never find their original families.

Nola's birthmother Monny

It’s against this backdrop that my fictional story is set. My novel Scattered starts in 1882 with 19-year-old Maggie on her way to look for her young brother and sister who had mistakenly been sent to Canada as Home Children without her knowledge. She’s shipwrecked on Sable Island en route, and by the time she finally arrives in Halifax, the trail to find young Jack and Emily has gone cold. A ruthless industrialist and a dashing newspaper reporter offer their assistance, but there’s more to her siblings’ disappearance than meets the eye.

  • Will Maggie find her siblings?
  • Does justice prevail?
  • Who’ll get out alive?
  • Is there a kissy?

 

Well, you’ll just have to read the novel to find out. I did have fun (and pull my hair out) as the plot wove its way around my heart for more than seven years. And to think I never would have heard of the Home Children if it wasn’t for John Willoughby in Anne’s village.

What seeds of stories have taken root in your hearts? I’d love to hear your examples.

The novel Scattered is due for release on 20 October 2020. It is available for pre-order on Amazon.

If you’re interested in more information about the Home Children, the British Home Children in Canada website is a good place to start. You’ll also find a link there to the British Home Children Advocacy and Research Association.

You might also find the following books helpful:

Bagnell, K. (2001). The little immigrants: The orphans who came to Canada (new ed.). Toronto: Dundurn.

Harrison, P. (Ed.) (2003). The home children: Their personal stories (new format ed.). Winnipeg: J. Gordon Shillingford.

Photo credits – Featured photo of luggage by No-longer-here from Pixabay

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8 Responses

  1. Nola, I’m so excited for your novel!! Thank you for sharing your personal story, I love your writing and sweet heart.

    1. Thanks Dianne. I appreciate your support. I just couldn’t let the story go after seeing that memorial sign at Avonlea Village. Just hope my next idea doesn’t take 7 years to percolate 🙂

  2. Sounds interesting, Nola, and it was good to hear your personal background. I’ll look forward to reading your novel. As for seeds for my books – they are always there. The current story is set on an island inspired by tiny King Island off Wellington Point where, in the early 1900s, the Phillips family lived for eighteen months for the health of their daughter Josephine who had polio. Mr P rowed a boat to work on the mainland every day. This island, like my fictitious one, is joined to the mainland at low tide, by a sand bar.
    Thanks for sharing the background to your novel.

    1. Thanks for that, Jeanette. Your story sounds really interesting too. I just looked up King Island. I hadn’t heard of it before, but now I want to walk across that sand bridge. I wonder how many people have been caught over there when the tide comes in? Have you read Kimberley Freeman’s ‘Ember Island’? It’s set on a fictitious Island in Morton Bay where there is a penal colony. I really enjoyed that one. Will look forward to your book.

    1. Thanks Sally. The kissy question will hopefully please the romance readers, but there is also a lot of mystery and adventure. My publisher Deb Porter did a great job on the cover. I’m glad you like it. Thanks for commenting 🙂

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