When you think of Canada, it doesn’t take long for your mind to wander to the red-haired girl with the famous puffed sleeves. Her books are still wildly popular in bookstores today, and she is a constant attraction for Japanese tourists.
Anne-with-an-E Shirley managed to steal the hearts of Canadians everywhere upon publication, and she grew in popularity over the decades. It was never much of a mystery as to why Canadians took to her so quickly. She was optimistic. She was thoughtful. She was loving, and in return she was so easy to love. We cherish her as part of a childhood that Canadians seem to universally share. Her book is a beloved staple.
Even during the war years, her upbeat tale managed to inspire. Poland managed to have the story translated during the war, and she snuck her way into school curriculums globally over the decades. Like the classic Cinderella story, she transformed her flaws into her most beloved attributes. Everyone fell madly in love with her charming speeches, as well as her fiery nature.
The tragic orphan had certainly managed to find her happy ending at Green Gables, while also inspiring several sequels, a beloved mini series in 1985, and even a Japanese anime, furthering her reach across the globe. Anne Shirley was such a staple that even the Canadian tourism industry capitalized off of her story, transforming Prince Edward Island into a landscape of Anne Shirley. One cannot visit the island without stopping by and exploring Green Gables, the home where the author Lucy Maud Montgomery grew up.
Canadians love talking about Anne Shirley and the impact the series had on their own lives. Traces of her can be found in the Canadian landscape. Still lakes, bright beneath the sun. Long sweeping fields of golden hay. Cherry blossoms, in particular, hold a treasured connection to the story and character.
What the country shrinks from, however, is the long legacy of home children, the inspiration behind Anne of Green Gables. Originally plucked from a newspaper advertisement, Montgomery had been inspired by the tale of a girl named Ellen, adopted by an elderly couple when they had originally sent for a boy to take up a role on their farm.
Even from this optimistic portrayal of the adoption and happy-ever-after for the girl, there is a bleakness that lingers. Fate had chosen Ellen to find her way to this home, when so many of the home children were abused and lost, left to work like slaves in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. One wonders what happened to the sought for boy and how his story turned out. Another question leads to the girl’s experiences before she arrived to Canada, safely secured in the hold of two siblings willing to let her remain in their family, despite her gender.
The mission for Home Children brought few happy-ever-afters, and instead scattered children across the globe.
Poverty had been a common element to life in the UK. Workhouses and their legacies terrorized the lower classes, casting a long shadow of abuse. These workhouses had been designed to fix poverty. Those who could not manage on their own would be taken into the hulking buildings and reduced to numbers. Women and men were separated, and children went off to their own section. The working conditions were overwhelmingly desperate, and the prisoners of the workhouses suffered, trying to work long hours on a low-calorie diet.
Home Children was the child migration scheme that took root in 1869, directing 100,000 children towards countries like Canada and Australia. They suffered extreme hardships and had no social security network to protect them, and were overworked by the settlers of early Canada.
The original intention was to liberate children from crushing poverty and to provide brand new opportunities that they ordinarily wouldn’t find in the UK. In exchange for their labor, they would be provided with shelter and food. However, instead of being adopted into families, children often discovered that they were simply workers-in-training, and separated from the rest of the children living in the area. Tasked with work, they often suffered under the demands.
When we look at Anne of Green Gables, we often fail to see the darkness present in the text. Her comments about her past spent looking after young children and acting as the working child often slip by. She frequently experiences despair, having her own father figure die near the end of the first novel, and in later sequels watches her friend die from consumption and suffers herself a miscarriage. Grief and despair linger in the background of her bright enthusiasm, but we ignore it.
In the most recent adaptation, Anne With An E took to Netflix and brought with it a nearly faithful adaptation. However, by layering in impressive twists to the original plot, they manage to reinvent the story. The formula is all the same— a red-haired orphan girl adopted by the elderly Cuthberts, and growing up over a string of adventures. It seems simple enough, but there is a brilliance that is added to the rehearsed formula.
The writers brought forward the darkness that loomed in the backdrop of the original source material. While Home Children and their legacy remain absent from the television adaption, flashes of previous trauma flicker across the screen, and the story introduces dangerous characters willing to inflict harm. In the second episode, viewers witness a man attempting to abduct children from the train station, and how close Anne is from being whisked away and never seen again. There is something startling in the casual aspect of the scene as audiences finally acknowledge the perils Anne finds herself engaged with.
One of the main elements to the first season was the harsh financial blow that the farm suffers, representing the dark difficulties of rural farming. The family running the farm depended on yearly success, and without it, things swiftly would go dark. This newly updated story provides insight to how crippling this devastation can be.
The only traces of Home Children can be found in the original inspiration for the novel, and that brings forward a shame. Having played a massive role in working in agricultural realms of Canada, they have been written out of history books. We fail to note our shortcomings in protecting and supporting these workers. Despite being children, they were shipped out for labour purposes only, and were lost from records over time. These children experienced limited agency and only found relief from the Home Children program during the Great Depression, when excess labour was no longer needed.
For now, their grim shadows can be found in the history behind Anne of Green Gables.
It is a fact that Canada fails to properly represent the Home Children. In 2009, the Minister of Immigration refused to apologize for the plight they underwent, and the suffering that they experienced at the hands of Canadians. Only a few token efforts were made to account for their presence, such as a plaque that can be found at the Home Children Memorial and Orphanage Building in Ottawa, a lone marker of the long history that sits in the shadows of elegant trees. A year after the Minister’s refusal to acknowledge the suffering of these labourers, the image of Home Children was printed into a postage stamp, rendered down in a plain piece of art.
As we fail to account for the labour that the country benefited from, the memory of these children suffocate under our silence.
Rachel Small is not a small person and might be the present day reincarnation of Lizzie Borden. She crawled to life one night after midnight in the basement of a bookstore just to write bad poetry.