British war evacuees in Canada during the Second World War

A war advertisement promoting the evacuation of children to the British countryside. © Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. R1300-34

For the week of September 21, 2020.

On September 21, 1940, RMS Nova Scotia set sail from London, England. It would be the last ship to transport British children to the safety of Canada during the Second World War.

Technological advances in the early 20th century, including the development of aerial warfare, erased earlier divisions between the battlefield and the home front. Fearing for the safety of civilian populations should tensions in Europe erupt in another world war, in 1938, British authorities started planning for the evacuation of mothers and children to designated safe areas—generally rural regions in the British Isles—as away of protecting them from the possibility of aerial bombing in major urban centers.

When the Second World War began in September 1939, nearly 1,500,000 people left British cities for the countryside or headed overseas, including 254 children sent to Canada during this first wave of privately sponsored evacuations. However, many returned home during the relatively peaceful period after the declaration of war in Western Europe, now known as “the Phoney War.”

Government-sponsored, overseas evacuations began in mid-1940, after France surrendered, German forces approached the English Channel, and the Battle of Britain increased fears that the countryside was no safe haven. The Children’s Overseas Reception Board worked closely with the British government to coordinate evacuations to Allied countries such as Canada, which accepted more than 3,000 children. Though the experiences of these children varied, for many foster families in Canada, as elsewhere, caring for evacuees represented an important service to Britain and contribution to the Allied war effort.  

Although never intended to be an adoption or permanent immigration scheme, seven percent of British evacuee children remained in Canada after the war, some having been orphaned, while others were later joined by parents who sought to build a new life for their families in Canada.

These families were part of the post‑war immigration to Canada, which is a designated national historic event. The Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada (HSMBC) advises the Government of Canada on the commemoration of National Historic Events, which evoke significant moments, episodes, movements, or experiences in the history of Canada.

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