The old brown suitcase her mother kept Christmas ribbons and bows in didn't mean much to Thelma Unruh when she was a little girl. It had belonged to her father, who never spoke about his childhood.
She had no idea the brown suitcase held the secret to her dad's past.
Unruh didn't find out the secret until after her dad died and she was a grown woman with a family of her own. She was watching TV and ironing clothes when she saw a program about poor children from Britain who were shipped off to work in Canada. Each child was given a little brown suitcase -- identical to her dad's.
"I couldn't believe it -- there was my Dad's brown suitcase," said Unruh.
He was one of an estimated 120,000 poor children and orphans dubbed the British Home Children shipped off to work placements in Canada from 1867 to 1939. They were indentured as farm workers and domestics.
'I think it affected him. He hid his emotions very well. When he was upset he'd become quiet, holding everything inside'
With that information, Unruh was able to track down information about her father, Edward Edwards. She learned he came to Canada to work at age 11 in 1910.
She said she can't imagine what life was like for her father as a child shipped off to Canada to work in sometimes difficult situations.
"You do what you have to do to survive," said Unruh.
She's collected some information about her dad from the British agency that placed him in Ontario. She learned he ran away from a couple of bad work placements.
"I think it affected him," she said of her father. "He hid his emotions very well. When he was upset he'd become quiet, holding everything inside." As children, Unruh and her siblings learned from their dad not to expect much from others and to be self-sufficient, she said.
"There are a lot of other people out there with the same experience," said Sandra Joyce, executive director of the volunteer-run British Home Children Advocacy and Research Association.
The association has twice presented a petition to the House of Commons asking the federal government for an apology for its role in the British Home Children story.
Australian and British governments have apologized to survivors and their descendants but Canada has not.
"The way we're looking at an apology is as a means to an end -- to help people like myself and families of the descendants," said Joyce in Toronto. They're hoping it will bring to light a sad chapter in Canada's immigration history.
It should be acknowledged, said Unruh.
"I don't know whether the word 'apology' is what I'm seeking," said Unruh. "It's more of a recognition -- to recognize this happened to children all over the place."
Her dad, a First World War veteran who fought at Vimy Ridge, was like many of the children brought over who never spoke of their childhood.
The national association was formed last year to research and advocate for the British Home Children and their descendants. It's helping people piece together family histories and understand family patterns, said Joyce. Her dad, Robert Joyce, came to Canada at age 15 in 1925.
"When I was young adolescent, I always had the feeling he didn't love me -- there was something missing there," said Joyce. She didn't learn why until after he died.
"Knowing he grew up in an institution then was shipped over here as a child and placed in an adult's job, he was not able to show me that love -- he didn't know how to," Joyce said. "These things are carried down through the generations."
Unruh said the suitcase she inherited now carries her father's history down through the generations instead of Christmas ribbons and bows.
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