Researcher seeks help locating descendants of British teenage farm labourers
PHOTO BY JOHN JANTAK
The gutted remains of the former Braerob farmhouse in Ste. Anne de Bellevue that was destroyed
by fire in 2012. The farmhouse was formerly used to employ teenaged labourers from the British
Isles during the mid-1920s until 1930. Cossar Farm in Gagetown, New Brunswick and Vimy
Ridge Farm near Guelph, Ontario, have been designated local heritage sites because of their
history of bringing teenage boys to Canada.
St. Lazare resident Deborah Robertson is on a quest to find the descendants of a group of teenage boys from the British Isles who were brought to Canada from the mid-1920s until 1930 to work on farms as labourers in English- language farming districts around the Montreal area, the Montérégie and Eastern Ontario. The immigration program was created as a Canadian government initiative to keep Canada British and known as the British Immigration and Colonization Association (BICA) which was started by a group of Christian men, said Robertson.
“BICA brought these boys over, mostly from England and Scotland from 1924 until the fall of 1930,” said Robertson. “They had big ideas of bringing in thousands of boys every year. The purpose was to have them work on farms.” By the end of 1930 when the program ended, more than 5,000 boys were brought to Canada. “In the United Kingdom especially after World War I when the soldiers came back, they had an excess of young people who didn’t have jobs,” said Roberson.
“So the government wanted to solve both of these problems at the same time. They also thought it would be good to strengthen the empire because these were British boys coming to Canada who would adapt and fi t in more easily than people from other countries.” BICA had a presence in the West Island municipality of Ste. Anne de Bellevue and briefly owned what is now known as the Braerob farm on Chemin Ste. Marie. “This was where boys who needed training were sent or were taken care of if ill between placements. BICA was a relatively small organization but other farms like these in New Brunswick and Ontario have become local heritage sites because of their history of bringing young immigrants to Canada,” said Robertson.
“BICA was committed to getting boys who weren’t from the streets or work houses,” she said. “They were looking for good boys who were from quality families because there had been complaints in Canada about the quality of the children that had been brought over previously.” Before the BICA program was established, the children sent to Canada were rescues from orphanages and difficult situations, known as “home children”.
“A lot of the home children did not choose to come to Canada, they were just shipped out,” said Robertson. “But even though the teenagers recruited by BICA were older, had finished their basic schooling and chose to come, which was unusual, they were still stigmatized and considered as home children because they’re were not adults,” Robertson added. Robertson said there is a large movement of people looking to houour the teenagers who were brought over as home children by BICA because of the hardships they faced. Despite the fact that many of these boys were taken advantage of by the families who were supposed to take care of them, others had positive experiences and the vast majority eventually became successful, contributing Canadian citizens.
“They would have a contract with the farmer and would be paid a certain amount of money for a specific period of time if things worked out,” said Robertson. “But if the boys or farmers weren’t happy, they were brought back to a hostel on what was known as Osborne Street near Windsor Station and another place was found for them. They worked as farm labourers because the Canadian government didn’t want people swelling the ranks of the unemployed in the cities.” Robertson will be speaking about BICA at the Quebec Family History Society (QFHS) conference “Roots 2015” in June and would be interested to communicate with anyone who could share their story, and if possible, images of a home child known to them. For more information on “Roots 2015”, visit the Quebec Family History Society website at www.qfhs.ca A searchable database with the names of home children is available at:
Robertson’s website is available at: http://www.british-immigrants-in-montreal.com/
She can also be reached via email at deb.robertson@ videotron.ca.