When the truth about the realities of residential schools started to come to the public’s attention with the discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves this year, Bill Dennis’s heart melted.
Dennis is the son of one of the approximately 100,000 “home children” that were sent from Britain to Canada between 1869 and 1948 and placed with families in rural areas of the country in the hope of having better lives.
Dennis said that, at the time, there was a lot of poverty in Britain and that country had a Poor Law that allowed authorities to take kids from poverty-stricken families, often without consent, and send them to families in countries like Canada, Australia and South Africa.
His father, Benjamin William Dennis, was one of those kids that ended up with a farming family outside of Toronto as an indentured worker, which means he was contracted to work on the farm without salary for a number of years.
His father lived and worked on the farm until he was 18 and was then released on his own with just the clothes on his back, with no family or friends to rely on.
“Kids as young as 10 were separated from their families and indentured in this fashion,” Dennis said.
“My father, who I never knew, spent his working life as a truck driver and when my mom passed away when I was just eight months old, he gave me to my grandmother. My grandmother accepted me but the family didn’t and I was kicked out of the house at 17.”
Dennis, who spent his career as a medic in the Canadian Armed Forces, said that, after the hard lives he and his father lived as youths, he was overwhelmed with emotion when the residential schools hit the headlines with the discovery of the unmarked graves.
“Something has to be done to recognize all the children who were put through such trauma, whether they are indigenous or not,” he said.
“Lives were brutal for all these kids. I can certainly see how residential schools impacted the First Nations children who attended them, and their children as well. There was no love for them in those schools and I was alone and had no one to love me either at that age.”
In recognition of the “home children” from Britain, Dennis paid for a plaque to commemorate them that is now on display on the grounds of the Duncan United Church on Jubilee Street, where he is a member of the congregation.
United Church Minister Keith Simmonds said the “generational trauma” that First Nations experienced of being taken away from their families and placed in a cruel and loveless environment brought up old emotional and psychological wounds for Dennis and others like him.
“The recognition of what happened to their parents affected them,” he said.
“Our service on Sunday [Sept. 26] will focus on this subject and we’ll dedicate the plaque at the same time.”