In December of 1897 John Joseph Kelso submitted ‘A Special Report on the Immigration of British Children,’ to the Ontario government in which he concluded that “child immigration, if carried on with care and discretion, need not be injurious to the best interests of this country.”
This part was written as an afterthought he said, in view of the growing hostility of the public toward child migration. By the late nineteenth century, there was a strong belief—largely instigated and fostered by the media—that Canada had become the dumping ground for British children of suspect upbringing and the importation of them was not in the best interests of the country.
Irish-born Kelso came to Canada at the age of ten along with his family, made penniless by a fire at his father’s manufacturing business in Ireland. That year, his eight siblings, along with his mother and his father, all suffered terribly from the hunger and the cold. Kelso helped his family by finding odd jobs and collecting firewood.
By selling newspapers and working for a printer, among other jobs, he was able to complete his high school education at Jarvis Collegiate in Toronto. He attributed his remarkable writing ability to reading the Bible and Shakespeare by the light of a coal oil lamp.
Kelso was hired as a proof-reader for a Toronto’s newspaper, The World. In his spare time he wrote articles for the paper without remuneration and became expert at reading and writing shorthand. This resulted in his promotion to police reporter. His success led to being hired by The Globe where he took on the task of exposing the circumstances under which the poor, particularly poor children, lived. His experience of poverty was destined to shape his life and one particular incident he witnessed when he was only 14 never left him. He saw five of his companions arrested for petty theft and thrown into jail with hardened adult offenders.
In 1886, he had discussions with the city clerk, after which an amendment to the Municipal Act was enacted – providing licensing and regulation of newsboys and other children involved in street trades. It prohibited those less than eight years of age from engaging in street occupations.
In 1887, impressed by his success in that regard, the Canadian Institute asked him to speak at one of their meetings. Subjects of reform were often discussed there. In February of that year, he gave a presentation entitled, “The necessity of a society for the prevention of cruelty in Toronto”. He made the case for a non-denominational humane society to protect both children and animals.
His ideas were received so enthusiastically at the meeting that a motion was passed to form such a society and Kelso was elected its first President. He resigned six months later due to his work overload at The Globe. His friend, wealthy dry goods merchant and philanthropist, John Kidston MacDonald replaced him as president.
However, he continued his crusade to help poor children and in 1888, he started the Fresh Air Fund that would provide day trips to the Toronto Islands and to parks. Christmas entertainment and gifts were also arranged. Eventually, the running of this Fund was taken over by the Toronto Star and remains to this day supported by them.
In 1891, Kelso suggested establishing a Children’s Aid Society in Toronto. Its objectives were many and here all Kelso’s ideas were brought together – a shelter for neglected children, adequate schools for the poor, separate treatment for juvenile offenders and more youth clubs and playgrounds. An emergency shelter for children opened in 1892 at 18 Centre Street in Toronto.
The public and politicians were now beginning to support the need for child welfare reform. In 1893, two years after the founding of the Children’s Aid Society, a bill was introduced, known as ‘The Children’s Charter’ that provided for the establishment of children’s aid societies across Ontario.
In May of that year, J.J. Kelso, still a Globe reporter and also the President of the Press Gallery of the Legislature, witnessed the passing of the ‘Act for the Prevention of Cruelty to and Better Protection of Children.’ Given his expertise in child protection, he was appointed by Premier Mowat to the position of Superintendent of Neglected and Dependent Children and Kelso gave up his journalistic career.
From 1893 until his retirement in 1934, he helped integrate children’s aid’s societies in other Canadian provinces. He was also involved in advocating for juvenile courts, mother’s allowances, more playgrounds and the legalisation of adoption. After 1895 he was recognised as Canada’s leading expert in child welfare and was well known as the ‘children’s friend.’
During the years preceding that post, and the 41 years he was in it, he did more to change the lot of children, not only in Canada but also in the United States and Britain, than any other person in Canadian history.