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Child Labour in Canada: Not Quite So Perfect


Maria Curry

Canada believes that child labour is the slavery of children in Ancient Greece, a tiny black child working in a field of cotton or a child in Bangladesh knotting rugs, destined for the homes of millionaires, with bloodied fingers and a whip at their back. By sticking to the belief that child labour only happens in other countries we are denying a part of our history that has the potential to allow us to right the wrongs of the past and those in other countries the world over.

From 1870 to the 1930’s, 98,000 British and Irish children came to Canada from the slums of London to perform menial labour on farms or to be sold servitude as a domestic maid. From 1871 to 1901 children regularly worked in the mines of Sydney and many others. Today the problem of child prostitution in Canada is steadily on the rise.

It began innocently enough with the desire by the rich of Britain to alleviate the ever-increasing problem of poor, starving children on the streets of London and other major cities in the United Kingdom. The philanthropic attitude was very popular among those whose families were becoming rich on the back of the cheap labour that children and women could provide. The popular belief at the time was that if the children were removed for the bad influence of the street (or in certain cases that of their families) and taken to a place where they could learn a trade or have more opportunities then eventually they would prosper. The less children there were on the streets than the less adults who would be searching for work in the future. (McEvoy, 2)

In August of 1870, the first shipment of children was sent from London, in the care of Father Nugent of Liverpool. His Protestant counter-part, Dr. Thomas Barnardo, also began to send children by the boat-load to waiting Protestant homes in the West and in Ontario at the same time. Father Thomas Seddan, an assistant to the Cardinal, became involved with the child immigration movement in 1874. Both of the priests continued to export the young labourers to Canada until 1898, when the ship Father Seddan was voyaging on, with a new group of children, sank, resulting in his death and those of the children. (McEvoy, 3)

In 1886, Cardinal Manning of Westminster Abbey entered the fight against child poverty. He felt that sending a child away from their surroundings was a means to solve the death and despair he saw on the streets around the Abbey. Canada proved to be the perfect solution. It was far enough away from Britain that parents could not come and collect their children when they were of age to be sold into service and had close enough ties to Britain that it would be simple to have the children imported.

At approximately the same time as Cardinal Manning became involved in the exportation, there was an outcry among those of the Catholic faith. They protested that Dr. Barnardo, along with his organization, were literally scooping children off the streets without any regard to their wishes or those of the parents and worse, they were debasing the Church by converting the children to Protestantism once they were in Canada. This battle of ecclesiastical egos, resulting in a race between the Anglican and Catholic Churches to bring as many children to Canada as possible, led to the virtual abandonment of the children by the church once they reached Canadian shores.

Technically, strict guidelines were placed on the types of families the children were given to and on their subsequent treatment, particularly by the Catholic Church. The Catholics stated that each family was directly responsible to the local parish priest. Married couples were preferred and the children must have a place in the family pew. Children over seven were to be taken to mass; the child was to be treated as one of the family, provided with clothing and given their own bed. It was never pretended that the children were not sent to Canada to work, however. Guidelines were written that allowed the child to " be employed in work suitable to their age, size and strength" (McEvoy, 9) and nothing more. Children eleven years and up were to be paid decent wages. In addition to their work the children over seven were to attend on full school session a year. Yet like all things that look good on paper, the guidelines were practically non-existent in the lives of the children. (McEvoy, 9-10)

The average child in the emigration system was usually picked up from a street corner and taken to one of the many boys’ and girls’ homes in the cities. The child’s parents were not usually notified and no checks into the child’s background were made. After a short period of time the child would be gathered together with twenty or thirty others and placed on a ship with a priest and a few nuns. During the long voyage to Canada the children had lessons on the Bible and on how to serve their new "families." Once they reached Ontario the children were sent to various children’s homes to wait inspection by the couples who would be adopting them.

"One child . . . provided a poignant description of how he was chosen from the Home: "Most everyday we were lined up in the front room for people who came to adopt a boy, and every day the line-up diminished by one or two on e or two boys. My older brother Mike was the first to go. I don’t remember having said goodbye, they just took him, and I suppose they thought it was better that way. A few days later it was my turn. About six or seven of us – including my younger brother Jos – were cleaned up and made presentable. Two ladies looked us over, chose me, and I left in the same manner as Mike did." (McEvoy, 14)


After a child was chosen things were far from perfect. While a few children say that the life given to them in Canada by their employers was wonderful and saved them from a life of poverty, the majority hold to the belief that they were misused, abused, and exploited by a system that refused to let them choose. Many of the children, having felt unloved and abandoned in their childhood, went on to commit criminal offenses and be deported back to Britain and the lives that the philanthropists had been trying to save them from. Life for the girls was just as trying. Seen by their employers as nothing more that objects they grew up believing that they were worthless. Five percent of them would, at some point, give birth to illegitimate children. The immigrated children, most of them under fourteen years of age, worked for an average of fourteen hours a day doing whatever work the adult world deemed beneath themselves. (McEvoy, 10-12). Ripped from their homes, and deposited in an unforgiving environment they made up almost one percent of Canada’s population at the turn of the century. (http://www.spartacus.

Child labour existed in other venues in other parts of Canada as well. In the Sydney mines between the years of 1871 and 1901 the percentage of the underground workforce under the age of eighteen varied between 26.9 and 17.3. The youngest of these boys worked in the pit as "trappers." They opened and closed the doors to let fresh air into the mines. They also ran errands from one mining site to another or fill tubs large tubs with coal. The older boys brought the coal from the sites where it was cut and led teams of horses to carry it to the surface. Slightly older boys, (aged fifteen to eighteen) worked as assistants to the miners, most of whom were older relatives. Children between ages seven to twelve were the rarest in the mines as there were relatively few jobs that they could fulfill competently. In addition, their pay was substantially lower and as a result their families were less likely to force them into labour until they were older and able to earn a better wage. Out of 101 families in 1871 with children eligible to work in the mines, 60 families had one or more boys working in the mines. (McIntosh, 91-92)

Education was not a large deterrent, mostly because until 1883 it wasn’t mandatory. After 1883, only children between the ages of seven and twelve had to attend school and they had only to show up for eighty school days in a year. These children did not often work in the mines so there was no difference in their employment levels. (McIntosh, 93; Devlin, 2)

The first move towards an end to child labour in Canada began on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. Children under nine were banned from working in factories in 1842. A provision was also made to the law that banned children under ten from working in mines (New Internationalist, 2) In 1847, the British passed a law that limited the hours of work for children to ten hours per day. (Cowe, 2). Then in 1893, the Ontario legislature passed an Act for the Prevention of Cruelty to and Better Protection of children. This act paved the way for such things as the Children’s Aid Society. Unfortunately, children from abusive or neglectful homes were still treated very much like the Home children inundating their country. They were often sent to homes that were little better if not worse then those they had left. (McEvoy, 9). Social welfare groups, like the Halifax Local Council of Women, sprung up around the country and lobbied the government to change policies and create laws to secure the safety of Canadian children. (McIntosh, 97)

The future of Canada’s child is still not secure. Canadian law allows fourteen year-old girls the right to sell her body, free of reprisals, other than the occasional sleep-over jail. The girls can not be charged. (Cosh)

Canada should take what it has learned from ending most of the child labour in our country and apply it with understanding and commiseration to the countries that still have not been able to eradicate the exploitation of children. Advice and intense work, not hand-outs will end child labour for good.



























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"Confronting Child Labour; then and now," New Internationalist, July 1997, vol. no 292.

Cosh, Colby, "Child’s right to sell her body: when a judge struck down Alberta’s child-hooker law, she cast doubt on all intervention," Report Newsmagazine (Alberta Edition), August 28 2000, vol. 27 no 8 p26.

Cowe, Roger, "Suffer the Little Children," New Statesmen, November 6 2000, vol. 129, issue 4511, Pg. 7

Dale, A. N., " The Politics of Anti-Sweatshop Organizing in Canada: What’s Missing," Canadian Dimension, September 2000, vol 34, issue 5.

Devlin, Sarah, "Home Children in the Maritimes,"

McEvoy, Frederick J., "These Treasures of the Church of God: Catholic child immigration to Canada," Historical Studies, 199, vol 65.

McIntosh, Robert, "The Family Economy and Boy Labour in Sydney Mines, 1871-1901," Nova Scotia Historical Review, vol 13, no 2 , 1993.

"Thomas Barnardo,"