In mid-1800s Canada, there existed the core ingrained settler values of independence and self-reliance that dissuaded municipalities from lending financial assistance to the poor in rural areas. As urban populations grew, the incidence of poverty and crime escalated. Poor laws, like the ones that obligated Englands municipalities to assist impoverished locals, did not exist in Canada. With no effective welfare infrastructure, communities responded by “auctioning off” able-bodied poor children and adults who had neither family nor local relations to help them.
People who applied for assistance, were offered up to the lowest bidder for the price of room and board or perhaps for a subsidy of 1 to 2 dollars a month. The person had little choice but to comply, as to do otherwise would result in the withdrawal of aid. Although many suffered unjust treatment, the system was condoned.
Indentured labour, also known as indentured servitude, was a legal contract between an impoverished person and a master. The servant offered their labour for a specified period of time in exchange for an agreed upon payment by the master.
Many new immigrants to Canada indentured themselves as a means of funding the cost of their ocean passage. A farmer with a large family might have found it implausible to divide his land equally among his children. He could offer one or more of his children for indenture to a wealthy landowner in exchange for a plot(s) of land they could farm in adulthood. Some contracts involved apprenticeships after which the child would have acquired a learned skill and the promise of permanent employment.
Without laws to prevent child abuse and no means of inspecting the conditions under which children worked and lived, orphans endured the worst abuses of the system. They were indentured for seven years or until the age of 21, which ever time range was longest.
Public complaints, many printed in newspapers, were commonly made against indenture holders for physical abuses and withholding of payments. Some masters refused to free indentured servants at the close of their contracts.
The country’s population grew in tandem with its economy, reducing the need for indenture to provide a workforce. Indentured servitude remained legal in Canada until its abolition in 1917, one year before the end of World War One.
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