Oranges and Sunshine: One Kind of Terrorism
Yesterday evening, we lit a yahrzeit candle in memory of my mother who died 14 years ago, 3 ½ years after my older brother Allan passed away at the age of 62. As I grow older and as the years pass, I think of both of them more than ever. This morning I went to the early morning service in synagogue to say kaddish in honour of my mother.
In the movie, Oranges and Sunshine (2011) directed by Jim Loach, which we watched on Netflix yesterday evening, one of the children shipped off from Britain to Australia, now an adult who spent 40 years of her life mopping floors since she was that child, in a quiet voice that tears at your heart, says, “Can’t ever forget your mom, can you?” My memories of my mother are of a rich and full life, though my mother worked and sacrificed so her three boys could go to school and become professionals in different fields.
There is a very different type of memory of moms, a memory of absence, a memory of being torn away, a memory of a hollowness left in your chest that nothing is ever able to fill. The latter painful memories, as portrayed in the movie, seem to have been the primary ones of the children that were forcefully deported from the U.K. to Australia. Those emotional scars were then reinforced by a chronicle of pain and abuse as the Christian Brothers, one of the charities that took in the children, mistreated them, made them engage in forced labour at a young age, and, in many cases, sexually abused and even raped the children. The pain in Jack (played brilliantly by Hugo Weaving, who won an AACTA award as best supporting actor) haunts the movie.
Margaret Humphries (Emily Watson, who won an Australian film critics award for this role) was a social worker in Nottingham, Great Britain in the 1980s when she had her first whiff of the scandal. She would develop into the dedicated quiet and determined zealot who established the Child Migrant Trust in 1987 as she uncovered the story of the exploitation and mistreatment of the 130,000 British children, the ironically named “home children,” who were told their mothers were dead. They were shipped off to the colonies. The mothers were told that the children had been adopted and their sons and/or daughters would grow up in better homes and a secure environment. The children grew up in institutions called homes that were anything but.
These types of schools were the brainchild of Kingsley Ogilvie Fairbridge, a South African raised in Rhodesia and a Rhodes Scholar and idealist inspired by both the tradition of Cecil Rhodes and totally appalled at the conditions of children in industrial Britain at the turn of the last century. Hence residential schools promising fresh air and light, good food and nutrition, schools that combined vocational training and basic education; Fairbridge organized the Child Migration Society. The first farm school was located in Pijarra near Perth. Much later, another was established north of Victoria in Canada just before Faibridge died at a young age in 1924. These schools were intended to be much more directed to benefit the children than the system which sent tens of thousands of children as domestic workers and farm helpers to Canada from British workhouses through the auspices of Bernardo’s Homes between Confederation and WWI. Three of the Barnardo boys committed suicide in 1924, the same year Fairbridge died.
The movement, of which the Barnardo’s Homes were a major part, was stopped in Canada by a campaign led by Charlotte Whitton, later elected in 1951 as the first female mayor of a major city in Canada’s capital city, Ottawa. Whitton had founded and directed the Canadian Council on Child Welfare between 1920 and 1941. The closing down of the operations of Barnardo Homes was the first of a long stream of victories in the many causes she championed.
Good intentions were at war with other “good” intentions. Charlotte Whitton was not so concerned with the well-being of the children as she was with her view of the well-being of Canada. She contended that many of the children being sent to Canada through the auspices of Barnardo Homes were sub-standard and inclined to immoral and juvenile behaviour. The children whose migration she opposed were not simply British kids from the slums of U.K.’s industrial cities. According to the Canadian Jewish Congress, before, during and immediately after WWII, “she was instrumental in keeping Jewish orphans out of Canada because of her belief that Jews would not make good immigrants and were basically inferior.” (Perhaps she repented her earlier evident anti-Semitism, for she was the first to sign the nomination papers of Ottawa’s first Jewish mayor, Lorry Greenberg.)
The ban on the Barnardo Homes by the Canadian government was lifted when the Fairbridge Farm School was established near Cowichan Station in 1935, helped by a contribution of $10,000 from the Prince of Wales, another large contribution by Rudyard Kipling, and a much larger donation by the Lumber magnate, H.R. Macmillan, who provided the main resources to build the school.
Less than two months ago, my son the farmer, bought his ten acre farm in the Cowichan Valley to establish Blue Roots Farm to start an aquaponics business growing fresh greens and herbs as well as fish for the markets and restaurants on Vancouver Island. At the same time as he was just moving into his farm, a reunion was being held of U.K. child migrants to mark the 80th anniversary of the establishment of the Prince of Wales Fairbridge Farm School near Cowichan Station just south of Duncan on Vancouver Island, about a ten-minute drive east from my son’s farm. Later last evening when I phoned him to say that he and Jessie had to watch the movie, it turned out that Jessie’s mother had that very same day watched the film on Netflix and had just phoned Jessie to tell her that she and Daniel had to watch the movie.
In 1935, about 350 children in total, mainly from Glascow, Wales and Birmingham, and only a very small proportion of the 130,000 U.K. children shipped to the colonies, were sent to the Prince of Wales Fairbridge Farm Residential School for supposedly “underprivileged children.” After the initial years of heart-warming stories on CBC and in major newspapers, eight years after its founding, the school founded on such idealistic grounds was rocked by scandal because of sexual “improprieties” between staff and students. In 1948, the last three children arrived. The school was closed in 1952, allegedly because it was too expensive to maintain. In 1975, a developer acquired the property and converted it into strata-titled homes, but the Fairbridge Chapel built in 1939 has been preserved as a historic site.
The reunion in September at Cowichan Station was held less than three months after a large settlement was made by Fairbridge Farm Schools to the adults who had been sent to Fairbridge Molong in Australia. The $24 million settlement was the highest compensation in Australian history, twenty-eight years after Margaret Humphries first informed the British and Australian governments of the abuse at Fairbridge in New South Wales. In 2015, five years after the U.K. government offered an official apology to former child migrants, the British government also announced a fund to help those children reunite with their parents.
Humphries had documented the record of that forced separation, forced deportation of the U.K.’s small children and their terrible treatment in Australia in her book Empty Cradles that was made into a documentary called Lost Children of the Empire in 1989. In 2011, the very moving docudrama, Oranges and Sunshine, was shown in theaters. For that is what the children were promised – sunshine and oranges. What they received were lives blackened and scarred by their mistreatment, by the slave labour they were forced to perform at very early ages, and the indenture that even followed when they left the school and were asked (required) to repay the debt from the expenditures on their care and upbringing.
On 16 November 2009, Kevin Rudd, then Prime Minister of Australia, noting the neglect and abuses, made a formal apology to those who had gone through the Fairbridge schools, as well as other governmental and religious institutions at the time.
We come together today to offer our nation’s apology. To say to you, the Forgotten Australians, and those who were sent to our shores as children without your consent, that we are sorry. Sorry – that as children you were taken from your families and placed in institutions where so often you were abused. Sorry – for the physical suffering, the emotional starvation and the cold absence of love, of tenderness, of care. Sorry – for the tragedy, the absolute tragedy, of childhoods lost; childhoods spent instead in austere and authoritarian places, where names were replaced by numbers; spontaneous play by regimented routine; the joy of learning by the repetitive drudgery of menial work… today let us now go forward together, go forward with confidence; go forward with confidence into the future – as equal, as valued and as precious members of this one great family that we call Australia.”
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s apology followed three months later.
In too many cases vulnerable children suffered unrelenting hardship and their families left behind were devastated…We are sorry they were allowed to be sent away when at their most vulnerable…We are sorry that instead of caring for them, this country turned its back…We are sorry that the voices of these children were not always heard, their cries for help not always heeded… We cannot change history but I believe that by confronting the failings of the past we can show we are determined to do all we can to heal the wounds.
However, there has never been a judicial inquiry into this scandal as there was into the indigenous children in Canada who were forcefully removed from their families and placed in residential schools. On the other hand, as far as I know, the treatment and abuse of indigenous children has never been treated to a full scale docudrama.
This Wednesday, I plan to see another docudrama, Spotlight, with a very old friend who goes back to my days as a graduate student when he was then a priest in the Catholic Church. As almost all of you probably know, Spotlight is a movie about the abuse Catholic clergy visited on children, mostly boys, in the Boston diocese as but one region of what was a worldwide plague in which the Catholic Church and the Christian Brothers played a central role, whether it was the mistreatment of indigenous children, so-called “orphans” from the U.K., or simply young boys singing in the choirs of Catholic Churches.
Though Oranges and Sunshine spends its time on the physical abuse and the lifelong emotional pain inflicted on the children, and, to a degree, on the mothers, the plot primarily focuses on the effort to trace and reunite children with their mothers from whom they were separated, the prime mission of the Child Migrant Trust. The movie does not try to explore the circumstances and motives across the West that facilitated the abuse of children by institutions said to be dedicated to their protection.
At one time in the movie, Margaret Humphries is driven out by Len (David Wenham) to one of these institutions in Bindoon, in the wilds of Western Australia, 52 miles north north-east of Perth where my oldest grandchild was born. In the movie, Len is perhaps the most embittered of the adults who were sent to these institutions. He covered up his bitterness with rudeness and a very rough exterior, refused to cry and give into the pain, and tells Margaret that, “I had to stop crying when I was eight, I don’t know how to start now.” He even donated a swimming pool to the Brothers from the resources of his successful business. The pain in Len, who could not and would not cry, was all the sharper precisely because of the repression, precisely because it remained deeply hidden; it is lifted in the film through the efforts of Margaret Humphries. That pain cuts through any Unmoved Mover.
Margaret protested Len’s initiative in visiting Bindoon, which she thought would be too painful. Just as she had once told him, he returned the favour and told her that the sight of the horror would be cathartic for her as well and possibly dispel the “monster in her head.” The Christian Brothers were still living in the very large stone building with a huge and high wood-panelled Great Hall in which a cluster of Brothers were having high tea.
Len asks the brothers if they could bring Margaret a cuppa. One young Brother, after being very hesitant, timidly brings tea. It turns out that the cup is chipped. Len then asks that tea be served in proper cups and the young Brother brings back a tray with a pot and two cups and saucers. It turns out there is no tea in the pot, only clear hot water when he pours. There is no explanation for these series of stumbles, no indication whether the behaviour was inadvertent or intentional, but the continual silence and stares and even fear on some on the faces of the Brothers tells the story as they sit in this huge great hall in a massive stone building constructed with the slave labour of those British children.
As one of the former children, now a broken adult about to enter his retirement years but with no means to support himself, says, “All day, in blazing heat, no rest, no water. I was nine years old, and I was lifting rocks the size of my upper body. And he’s yelling at us, ‘You weak, weak pitiful sons of whores’. We built Stations of the Cross, but who was crucified, huh? Tell me that.”
The cost to Margaret Humphries, who had a devoted husband and two children, was enormous. At one point at a Christmas celebration, with many of the adults who were once children in those institutions there along with Margaret Humphries and her family present, at this joyful occasion, an occasion of giving gifts, Ben, Margaret’s youngest, was brought a present and then asked, “So what are you going to give all of us for Christmas, Ben?” Ben, mildly and quietly, replies, ”I gave you my mum.”
And that is perhaps the most poignant part of the film. For as the movie unfolds, as the scandal is uncovered, as several adults are reunited with their long lost mothers, Margaret has had to sacrifice months at a stretch with her family as she worked in Australia to trace down the children and then, back in the U.K., as she traveled across Britain to locate the mothers. The worst: she absorbs their pain. She acquires Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The cost to her and her family was enormous, but it is also clear that she had a loving and supportive family otherwise it is doubtful whether she could have emerged from the other end except as a broken woman. That loving family is the foil for what those Fairbridge children were denied.
Ironically and tellingly, the movie starts with Margaret Humphries trying to calm a mother as she tells the mother to put her baby back in the cradle. When the mother does, Margaret says to her, “So right now your baby needs to be safe, and you need a bit of support, don’t you? I know you care, of course you do. But this will give you a chance to sort yourself out.” Margaret then lifts the baby from the cradle and whisks off with it as the hysterical mom fights off the personnel who hold the mother back as Margaret makes her escape with the baby. Margaret starts off being part of a social work system that sent all these children to lives of misery.
But she became a crusader for these lost children. That was not true of the many bureaucrats she confronted as she pursued the truth of what had happened. At one point in the film, when she has just finished a very frustrating meeting with a group of bureaucrats, Margaret is already at the bottom of one of those very wide staircases those of us who are old enough remember as a trademark of institutional life, whether in our own schools or in City Hall. Margaret stops and turns and we listen expectantly to one sympathetic bureaucrat who seems to have broken from the pack and chased after her. But our hopes are dashed. She says, “You say you’re speaking as a mother. But please, take consolation your own family wasn’t meddling with all this. I mean, how could you possibly understand the real circumstances of these unfortunate children? They were living in slums. They were children of truants and degenerates.”
Not very different than the sentiments of our own Charlotte Whitton who would go on to become the mayor of Ottawa, Canada’s capital city.