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Scottish Child Labourers in Canada

Part 2 of our series on Child Emigration, particularly through the Quarrier's Orphan Homes of Scotland, will focus on the experiences of Child Labourers in Canada.

(Child Emigrant ploughing a field. Photo:wikipedia)

As the second instalment in the series on Quarrier’s Child Emigrants, we have an article on Child Labour. It is generally accepted that whilst children were sent abroad in an attempt to improve their lives, this was seconded by a Canadian need for cheap labour, and a British need to lessen the number of destitute people living in city slums. There were, of course, other contributing factors however, this is the main way in which child emigration schemes benefited Canadian development. Child labourers of this period were primarily sent as farmhands and domestic servants.

Child emigrants in the early days ranged from ages 5-15. Those under 7 were sent in the hope of adoption, whilst older children were sent to work. Farm labour was hard, with many emigrants recalling long hours, sacrificed schooling, and harsh conditions. James McCallum, who was emigrated to Canada in 1929 aged 15, recalled ‘we arose about 4.30 am. and worked as long as it was daylight, usually about 9 p.m... they were atrocious hours for a young boy to work, but it was usual for the time.’ Another child who emigrated in 1903, recalled the challenges faced after outgrowing his boots when he “was obligated to perform three weeks of chores in bare feet” in the sub-zero Canadian winter, standing in fresh cow-pat for warmth.

The long hours and hard work often meant missing school, with some farmers reluctant to send children at all. This made children behind in their studies, furthering the many ways in which they were already different. Some children wrote back to Quarriers explicitly mentioning regular school attendance, though, as with other aspects of the Annual Reports, these seem overly formulaic.

However, in 1891 the official school leaving age in Canada was raised from 12 to 14. Also in 1891, legislation in Ontario ensured that full-time schooling for children aged 8-14 was mandatory. By 1904 Canada was experiencing a welcome boom in the farming industry. Subsequently, the demand for young children plummeted, whilst the need for juvenile workers increased. The two events were by no means unrelated - faced with mandatory schooling for younger children and an economic farming boom, younger children were no a) longer needed and b) wanted, as the desire for juvenile workers increased. Children in full time schooling would have insufficient free time to be employed in the long hours necessary for farm work or the all-day commitments that employed girls, such as housework and childcare.

(photo: BHCARA, accessed The Scotsman)

It has occasionally been argued that the actions of the past cannot be judged by the standards of the present. However, even in the early 20th Century, there were mandates in place protecting the education of children in Scotland. In 1901, the school-leaving age in Scotland was raised from 13 to 14. In 1909, the average age of emigrated girls was 13.3, with boys averaging at 12.8. This indicates that the majority of the children were under school leaving age and, with the demand for workers increasing, were being sent as underage labourers under contemporary legislation in both Canada and Scotland.

By 1924 the morality of child emigration came into question, particularly in Canada. James Woodsworth, a Canadian MP stated, “We are bringing children into Canada in the guise of philanthropy and turning them into cheap labourers”. In November 1924, the British commissioned Bondfield Report claimed that sending children to Canada as labourers had a disastrous impact on their education and strongly recommended that only those over 14 should be allowed to emigrate. This advice was taken and turned into the Ontario Act in 1925 which prohibited the child emigration of under 14s into Canada altogether.

As Quarriers knew the restrictions in place regarding child labour and schooling, and effectively ignored them, they were directly culpable for the use of children as cheap labour and subsequently, their interrupted schooling. Children of an insufficient school leaving age in both Canada and Scotland were emigrated as workers. Although Institutes attempted to moderate school attendance through Indentures, these were unenforceable leaving children to reconcile the effects of interrupted schooling.

The British Government directly facilitated the practice of Child Emigration through their reluctancy to implement sufficient poor laws and, when criticised, they failed ‘to turn principles into regulations’. Positive changes were generally pushed by small, or local departments in the government who promoted practices such as medical checks prior to emigration and the securing of official consent from both the child and guardian in situations when this could feasibly be achieved. They further stressed the imperativeness of securing homes for children either with or nearby their siblings to ensure contact could be maintained.

A report put forward to the Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry suggests that it was the UK parliament rather than the Scottish government which continued to support sponsored emigration (though at the time there was 71 seats in parliament held by Scottish MPs. It was the British Parliament that created taxes in order to fund the Empire and Commonwealth Settlement Act, which, after 1922 provided funding for child emigrants’ tickets and maintenance until they were 16. The report further states that although certain departments in Scotland were given some administrative responsibilities involving child emigration, it was the British Parliament that was predominantly in control of creating and developing the policies and practices.

A 2018 Inquiry into Child Emigration Schemes from Britain to Australia claimed that it was the fault of the British Government that Child Emigration continued, and that the practice was and ‘badly executed’. It further claimed that the practice was ‘badly executed by many voluntary organisations and local authorities, which HMG had continued to allow in spite of a ‘catalogue of evidence’ showing children were ill-treated and abused’.

Therefore, although the Institutes sending children, such as Quarriers and Barnardo's were far from innocent, the British Government failed to implement regulations that would protect children's interests and prevent their exploitation as child labourers. By the 1930s, the practice of child emigration was being criticised for its insufficient, dangerous and often lacklustre practices. Many protesters further felt that the sponsored removal of children abroad was a blatant attempt to avoid setting up any real provisions for the poor and destitute population.

Children were still being sent abroad until 1970. The majority of modern criticism of the practice has focused on the 3000 or so children sent abroad to Australia after the end of the Second World War. There has been slightly less criticism of the phases of emigration prior to this. However it remains an integral part of the Scottish Diaspora as a whole which deserves to be remembered, if only for the sake of the Child Emigrants who lived and died with the 'shame' of being a Home Child.

Bibliography and Further Reading:

  • Canada’s Home Children’, CBC Canada, 1994. Radio.

  • ‘Scotland’s Little Emigrants’, BBC Radio Scotland, 1994. Radio.

  • Quarrier’s Orphan Homes of Scotland, ‘A Narrative of Facts relative to work done for Christ in connection with the Orphan and Destitute Children’s Emigration Homes, Glasgow’, (Glasgow Aird andCoghill, 1886), 1886.

  • Quarrier’s Orphan Homes of Scotland, ‘A Narrative of Facts relative to work done for Christ inconnection with the Orphan and Destitute Children’s Emigration Homes, Glasgow’, (Glasgow Aird andCoghill, 1888), 1888.20 Ibid pp. 20-45.

  • Quarrier’s Orphan Homes of Scotland, ‘A Narrative of Facts relative to work done for Christ inconnection with the Orphan and Destitute Children’s Emigration Homes, Glasgow’, (Glasgow Aird andCoghill, 1892), 1892.

  • Quarrier’s Orphan Homes of Scotland, ‘A Narrative of Facts relative to work done for Christ inconnection with the Orphan and Destitute Children’s Emigration Homes, Glasgow’, (Glasgow Aird andCoghill, 1928), 1928.

  • A. Magnusson, The Quarriers story: a history of Quarriers (Edinburgh, revised edition 2006, originallypublished as The Village: a history of Quarriers (Quarriers, 1984).

  • H. J. MacDonald, ‘Children under the care of Scottish Poor Law, 1880-1929’ (ProQuest,2018).

  • J. Barman, "Child Labour". The Canadian Encyclopedia, Historica Canada. Accessed 25 April 2021.

  • M. Harper, ‘Cossar’s Colonists: Juvenile Migration to New Brunswick in the 1920s’, Acadiensis, 28(1998), 47-65.

  • M. Harper, ‘The Juvenile Immigrant: Halfway to Heaven or Hell on Earth?’, in C. Kerrigan (ed.), The Immigrant Experience (University of Guelph, 1992), pp.165-179.

  • M. K. Norrie, ‘Legislative Background to the Treatment of Children and Young People Living Apart from their Parents’, (Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry, Edinburgh), 2017, (Accessed 24 March 2021).

  • Quarrier’s Charity, ‘Our History’, (Accessed 22February 2021).

  • S. Constantine, M. Harper, & G. Lynch, Executive Summary – Child Abuse and Scottish Children Sent Overseas through Child Migration Schemes Report (2020).

  • The National Archives, ‘Prevention of Cruelty to, and Protection of, Children Act, 1889’.,be%20ill%2Dtreated%2C%20neglected%2C (Accessed 24 February 2021)

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