As part of Culture Days in Prince Albert the Prince Albert Historical Society presented a discussion about British Home Children by Susan Brazeau and Joan Champ.
The first half of the presentation was ‘British Home Children: Almost Forgotten, Almost’ by Brazeau and the second half was ‘Shattered Lives: British Home Children in Prince Albert’ by Champ.
The presentation focused on an era when Great Britain sent an estimated 100,000 or more children to Canada as indentured workers between 1869 and 1948. Most never contacted their families again.
It is estimated that 10 to 12 per cent of Canadians are descended from these children, but their history is not well known.
Saturday’s event drew a packed house, with more than 30 people purchasing tickets to attend. When Brazeau asked audience members if they were the descendant of a British Home Child, 15 people in the audience raised their hands.
“I had no idea, but it’s exciting just because of the orphanage (in Prince Albert) and knowing that there might be descendants,” Brazeau said. “Because I am on different Facebook pages and research groups, a couple of them have contacted me in the past once they found out that we were doing this. The event was sold out with minimal advertising,” Brazeau said.
“On Monday we were told that there were nine spaces left and today we have got 30 people. We weren’t expecting any more than, if they did come, maybe 20. To have people come so quickly in such a short period of time was gratifying.”
Brazeau gave attendees an overview of the history of British Home Children, while Champ gave them a look at their history in Prince Albert.
The pair decided to host an event after Brazeau contacted Champ in March. Brazeau had been reading about Champ’s research, and thought they should collaborate.
“I just thought this is just too good because that’s what I do in my presentations,” Brazeau said.
“I thought this is perfect. This is absolutely something that should happen.”
After that the Historical Society, museum curator Michelle Taylor, and the Prince Albert Daily Herald also became involved.
Brazeau said the topic is a large one, making it difficult to pare things down for a one hour presentation.
“I sent her (Champ) some of what I was going to say and I said, ‘I can try to get it under an hour’ because of course my presentations are usually much longer,” said Brazeau, who lives in Lloydminster.
Brazeau is a member of several museums and research groups dedicated to British Home Children. She is retired from her teaching position with Lakeland College, and first became interested in the topic because of her grandmother, Grace Ruth Sillett.
“I was working as a librarian and there was a periodical that came from Shell Canada,” Brazeau remembered. “In the back was this book review on The Little Immigrants by a man called Kenneth Bagnall. I read that and I called my dad and I said, ‘this is something that could be (about) granny.’ All we knew about my grandmother was that she told us she came to Canada as a little girl to be a companion to a little girl. That’s all we knew.
“I thought, ‘I’m going to contact Barnardo’s (one of the agencies that took in Home Children) to see if she was. In those days, it cost a donation, Now it’s over $300, almost. I started to research the British Home Children but I focused mainly on my grandmother and then my family history to begin with, so it was a couple of years before I got into doing more … but I just kept on reading books, buying books, researching.”
This continued for years and she built up a body of research. In 2012, Brazeau was doing her masters and contacted her professor about doing her thesis on the topic. To Brazeau’s surprise, the professor said her husband was also a British Home Child descendent. She was even able to borrow some of his books on the topic.
“By then I had done so much research, but I felt guilty because my grandmother never said anything to anybody,” Brazeau said. “I thought, ‘am I breaking something here?’
“I began to realize that I was sharing a piece of Canadian history, I called this a unique part of Canadian history, and these children are unique children in our history. Every one of us who are descendants are unique.”
Champ, whose popular column series ‘Shattered Lives’ in the Daily Herald helped inspire the presentation, was also pleased by the crowd.
“I’m very pleased because the limit was 25 and we had more than that,” she said. “It wasn’t too crowded and everybody was very interested. They were a captive audience, so it was really good. I’m so pleased that people came out.”
“I have had some positive feedback, that’s for sure,” she added.
Champ said the Shattered Lives series gave her an opportunity to get in touch with a number of descendants. The columns helped generate a steady stream of new leads and information.
“I have had emails that were forwarded to me from the Prince Albert Daily Herald, from readers, and I post the articles on Facebook,” Champ said. “People will contact me and say ‘can I use your material in my Grade 4 or Grade 5 class?”
Elementary school teachers are the only people who are interested. Champ was also contacted by a nursing professor from the University of Saskatchewan.
“She says, ‘people need to know this stuff,’ and I agree. People need to know about this,” Champ said.
“It was never taught. It still isn’t taught.”
Champ stumbled across it when she wrote a column on a fire at St. Joseph’s Catholic Orphanage, which existed from 1901 to 1907. She started to wonder about the children in the orphanage, and the people who ran it. Her research, and the column, grew from there.
Champ is a former chief executive officer of all four branches of the Western Development Museum and a frequent contributor of history columns to the Daily Herald. She said she loves the feedback.
“It’s very rewarding to hear things like that because, for me, doing this research is a labor of love,” she said. “I love doing research more than I love writing because I’m not a great writer. I learned how to write as a university student, and that kind of got me indoctrinated into scholarly writing.”
Saturday’s event marked the first time Champ and Brazeau had met in person. They went for lunch before the presentation.
Champ thanked Brazeau for coming up with the idea to co-present at the Museum.
“She and I have been corresponding since March, and I’m so grateful to her,” Champ said.
Champ said she is still working on ideas for her next series of columns
Museum curator Michelle Taylor introduced the duo prior to their presentation. There was an intermission between the two presentations and a question and answer following both talks.
In recognition of British Home Children, the City of Prince Albert has declared Sept. 28 as British Home Children Day.