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John Reid & Glenn Wright

Great Expectations: A Tale of Two Countries

As a British colony since the 18th century to a member of the British Empire by the 1930s, Canada attracted hundreds of thousands of men, women and children from Britain expecting a better life and helping build the country. The numbers are impressive. There is no typical immigrant and, in this presentation, based on case studies, we will look at several different types of immigrant. Who are these people, what are their stories and what does their experience tell us about British immigration to Canada? From well-to-do families came some, known as “remittance” men, who were essentially exiled to Canada with the promise of a monthly allowance and a reciprocal promise not to come home again. Some flourished, some did not.

While many immigrants saw Canada as a place to settle into a community and raise a family others arrived with an interest in the military, policing or adventure. The Mounted Police, for example, included several titled members, the son of a famous novelist and at least two members who escaped from unhappy marriages, in one case, with deadly results. And well known is the story of Archie Belaney who left Hastings, England, arrived in Canada, and transformed himself into Grey Owl.

At the other end of the social scale were more than 100,000 young British boys and girls – orphaned, neglected, abused or considered “surplus” who were taken in by charitable organizations with the promise of a better life in Canada. The names Rye, Barnardo, Middlemore, Fegan and others are writ large across the history of these young immigrants.

The individual stories in this lecture are nothing more than a quick flash of light on the British immigrant experience, but what about our own ancestors? What were their motives for leaving home, what was their experience in a new land, what can we learn from the stories of individual and some very untypical immigrants?