Patricia Skidmore began exploring the story of child migration to Canada in the late 1990s. She is the editor of the Fairbridge Gazette and lives in Port Moody, British Columbia.
Remembering Marjorie Skidmore
During my mother Marjorie’s final days, I found myself wondering if I had asked her all the questions that I needed to ask. It made me feel badly, as it took me away from being fully present. This worry had no place here. It was her time — her time to rest, her time to go forward and not look back. Not to worry — not to dig up the past — old wounds, old traumas. I had to let it go but it was not easy. This mother of mine with so many secrets. Her buried past. Did she tell me all, or were there other stories too difficult to bring to light?
Her 87-year-old sister was by her side and said, “I will be all alone. I was left alone at Middlemore. I was left alone at Fairbridge.”
It startled me to hear this. These sisters separated from their family, from their community, and their country of birth were sent thousands of miles away to a foreign and often hostile ‘new home.’ The way my mother faced her uncertain future was to bury her past. It wasn’t until she was in her mid seventies that I was able to finally get her to talk about being a child migrant.
It was in 1937, almost 80 years ago to the day that they lost their family and I could sense that the pain was still raw, still deep, and now surfacing at this difficult time.
Family: in most societies, it is the principal institution for the socialization of children. Yet for Canada’s 120,000 migrant children, sent to this country as early as 1833 to work (and many fared no better than slaves), family was not seen as important. These child migrants or Home Children, as they have become known in Canada, did not have the luxury of a family to guide them or to protect them.
Marjorie’s family had been living in Whitley Bay, northeastern England, since the early 1920s. It was a depressed area at this time, so her father had gone to London where he found work. He planned to bring his family south as soon as he was able, but it was not in time for Marjorie and three siblings. In February 1937, the children were removed from their mother’s care and placed in the Middlemore Emigration Home in Birmingham. Marjorie (then ten years old) and her younger brother Kenny (9 years old) passed the Canadian Immigration inspection and in September 1937, they were sent to Canada to the Prince of Wales Fairbridge Farm School near Cowichan Station on Vancouver Island. Marjorie’s older sister Joyce (who was twelve, but her records showed her to be thirteen) was rejected because she was thought to be too old for the scheme. However, it appeared that their birthdates had been changed and Joyce, Marjorie and Kenny were listed as being a year older than they were. Seven-year-old Audrey was rejected because of her health and remained at the Middlemore Emigration Home until August 1938, when she too was sent to the Prince of Wales Fairbridge Farm School.
The two sisters were together again. But in 1942, they were separated when Marjorie turned 16, as she was sent away to work as a domestic servant. Twelve-year-old Audrey remained at the Farm School for another four years. Her big sister was her protector and the loss was such that she carries the wound to this day. The younger brother Kenny was at the farm school until 1944, but the boys and girls had little interaction, even travelling to their daily duties of work and school on the farm school property via separate pathways.
Marjorie — on her deathbed said, “It is what it is,” and proceeded to calm the room full of her ‘Canadian’ family: her younger sister, Audrey, Marjorie’s four remaining children, their spouses, a niece and several grandchildren. She came to Canada as a child and had to struggle to create her family from scratch — it was not always easy. She departed surrounded by the family she built, yet there was such a deep sense of loss present — not just her loss as she passed, but the loss of our family, our roots, all those years ago.