Manitoba History: Reviews: Sandra Rollings-Magnusson, Heavy Burdens on Small Shoulders: The Labour of Pioneer Children on the Canadian Prairies and Roy Parker, Uprooted: The Shipment of Poor Children to Canada, 1867-1917

by Sharon Reilly
Curator of Social History, The Manitoba Museum, Winnipeg

Number 65, Winter 2011

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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It is a rare treat to see one, let alone two, new studies related to the history of childhood in Canada. The publication of Heavy Burdens on Small Shoulders: The Labour of Pioneer Children on the Canadian Prairies by sociologist Sandra Rollings-Magnusson of Edmonton’s MacEwan College, and Uprooted: The Shipment of Poor Children to Canada, 1867–1917 by Roy Parker, Professor Emeritus of Social Policy at the University of Bristol, have added considerably to this field of literature.

Professor Parker’s meticulous study focuses on the 80,000 British children who, in the 50 years following Confederation, were shipped to Canada to alleviate the stress on Britain’s overburdened social welfare system. Using letters and other documents left behind by the emigration authorities, and sometimes by the children themselves, Parker examines the child emigration scheme, the complex and competing forces that shaped it, and its results

The cover image of Uprooted shows a serious-looking group of boys lined up, suitcases in hand, waiting to board a ship bound for Canada. This photo and a section of sixteen additional archival images are included to illustrate the text. These photos provide a glimpse of some of the children who are the focus of this study, along with scenes of the type of ship they would have sailed on, and a farm typical of those where the children were placed once in Canada. One wonders what additional images and perhaps artefacts might exist, hidden away in private homes, museums or archives.

Roy Parker introduces his work by placing it in a contemporary context, making it relevant to a wide readership. “Thousands of children are being uprooted as I write,” he begins, whether as refugees or migrants, children sold into sexual slavery, child soldiers, child labourers, or youngsters accompanying their parents on family moves.

With this thought in mind, Parker emphasizes the importance of understanding not only the historical contexts and the sociological, political and economic reasons behind such moves, but also the impact being uprooted has on a given child. He dismisses the myth that children are survivors by nature—pliable and adaptable, and able to rebound from the most traumatic of experiences. Instead, he argues, children have “their own, unique histories, however brief and fragmentary, that remain a crucial part of their sense of identity.”

Parker reviews Britain’s child emigration schemes prior to the late 1860s, and describes the various circumstances that resulted in a return to emigration as a solution to the nation’s social and economic problems. He explains how social workers, religious leaders and government authorities anticipated that the crisis in the social control of poor and destitute children (which intensified as technological change accelerated the loss of jobs) might be alleviated through emigration.

Canada’s need for labourers of all kinds, especially domestic workers and agricultural labourers, made it an ideal destination for Britain’s surplus children, as did the priority given to British immigrants, the country’s relative proximity, and the availability of rural placements. The author explains how children, corrupted by the evils of the city and therefore placed in Britain’s reformatories and industrial schools, were expected to be rehabilitated when relocated to the pure landscape of rural Canada.

The author explores the regulations that were put in place on both sides of the Atlantic to control the emigration and resettlement of children, and the role played by Protestant, Catholic, and other, “unorganized” advocates of emigration. He describes the placement of children in various circumstances across the provinces and, using letters written by some of the youngsters, details the difficulties that befell them. Worse, he explains, was the ill treatment that was inflicted upon many of these children, from physical abuse and neglect to sexual assault. He is careful to point out that it was not just the rights of child emigrants, but of children in general, that suffered during this period of our history and points to the protest and reform movement that eventually resulted in improved treatment of children.

Parker completes his examination with a discussion of earlier Canadian studies of child emigration including Labouring Children by Joy Parr (1980), The Home Children by Phyllis Harrison (1979), and Barnardo Children in Canada by Gail Corbett (1981). Based upon his own research and the findings of these scholars, he concludes that most of the children uprooted by Britain’s child emigration program suffered greatly. This begs the question, he warns, of how future generations will judge society’s treatment of vulnerable children today.

Heavy Burdens on Small Shoulders: The Labour of Pioneer Children on the Canadian Prairies focuses on the work of pioneer children (as opposed to Parker’s immigrant children), children’s work on family farms in western Canada during roughly the same time period examined in Uprooted, the years of intensive settlement of this region from 1871 to 1913. Sandra Rollings-Magnusson uses more than two hundred children’s diaries, letters, journals and poems, along with census data, other official records, and the existing scholarship in the field to explore the contribution of children to the survival of farm families during these years. She effectively demonstrates that, like women, “children worked hard to assist in achieving success, but were treated as economically invisible labour on the farm.”

Thirteen statistical tables are included within the text, providing data on the nature of the agricultural workforce and the gender division evident in the kinds of labour performed by adults and children of different ages on the family farm. A selection of archival images scattered throughout the text offers a more subjective picture of this experience, and shows children at work in a variety of circumstances.

The author categorized the work performed by children as productive labour (including tasks like field work, livestock production, caring for horses, transporting crops, and other farm work); entrepreneurial labour (paid employment, raising animals for sale, selling goods like milk, butter, eggs or fruit, participating in gopher bounties, and trapping and selling furs); and subsistence labour (an endless list of chores including feeding chickens and pigs, milking cows, churning butter, picking berries and rosehips, gathering eggs, collecting wild mushrooms, washing clothes, spinning yarn, making beds, washing dishes, scrubbing floors, cooking meals, making and repairing clothes, hauling water, and caring for younger siblings).

As in Parker’s study, the most poignant passages in this text come from the writings of the children themselves. In describing their work, they tell of the hardships they experienced, from developing calluses on their hands while cutting cordwood, to being terrified and risking injury while helping to douse a wildfire that threatened their home. Unlike Britain’s young exiles, however, these farm children also write of the satisfaction they felt in completing a difficult chore, or their pride in contributing to their family’s well-being, like the child who planted irises to beautify the family farm.

While the circumstances of children working on the family farm under the supervision of their parents were scarcely idyllic by today’s standards, Rollings-Magnusson demonstrates that the work experiences of the children she studied tended to compare favourably with those of the “home” children of Parker’s study. However, as Parker points out, the child welfare reform movement that emerged in Canada in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was needed to protect the rights of all children.

In accessing and trying to control the work that children internationally are permitted to perform today, child advocates distinguish between child labour—exploitative work that is injurious to the child and threatens his or her right to an education and personal well-being—and child work, which is often a necessary contribution to a family’s survival and may involve learning a skill that will serve the child later in life. Sandra Rollings-Magnusson’s study tells us that the labour of pioneer children on the Canadian prairies fell into the latter category, and that their vital contribution to the development of the Canadian west deserves far greater recognition.

Clearly, there is more work yet to be done in this field. It is improbable that the voices of discounted or abused children would be found in the voluntary writings of the children that formed the basis of Rollings-Magnusson’s research. Likewise, non-English speaking and illiterate children are not included in the study. The differences that existed across class and ethno-cultural lines, and the extent to which different families chose, or chose against, using child labour have not yet been considered. Perhaps future studies will be able to answer some of these questions and provide more information concerning the work performed by children and the role it played in their lives.

Page revised: 17 August 2016