Monday, 12 December 2011

Book Review:
A Troubled Personality Revealed

Nerys Parry, Man and Other Natural Disasters (Winnipeg, Manitoba: Enfield and Wizenty, an imprint of Great Plains Publications, 2011), 214 pp. ISBN 9878-1-926531-12-0. $29.95.

I became alarmed upon seeing this local news on November 10 about Doukhobors in a new book: 'Acclaimed Ottawa author doing select readings in the area'. Was another award-winning author slandering the Doukhobors?

'Man and Other Natural Disasters delves into turbulent acts in Canada's past. The Sons of Freedom, an offshoot of the Doukhobors protested against government interference with mass nudity, arson and explosives. That past terrorism is analogous to what's happening now in many parts of the world. Nerys spent many hours reading the actual diaries of the Sons of Freedom. She was surprised how closely the situation happening in Bountiful B.C. mirrors what happened decades ago.

'Man and Other Natural Disasters is a thoughtful and frightening novel on what happens when extremism takes over a religion or belief system.

'Nerys was a finalist for the 2011 Colophon Prize and tied for seventh out of more than 130 books in the Giller Prize Reader's Choir Award contest....'


Reviewer Koozma J. Tarasoff (right) exchanged books with author Nerys Parry (left)

I had to read the book and meet Nerys Parry, because the news announcement was misleading in two ways:
  1. Those Sons of Freedom who burnt, bombed and went naked distanced themselves from the main Doukhobor Movement, and therefore they excluded themselves from it. The word 'Doukhobor' does not belong here and therefore should not be used in association with the zealots. When used, it is a case of exploitation and slander against a peaceful group.
  2. The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS Church) — polygamist Mormons in Bountiful, BC — have no connection to the Sons zealots or to the Doukhobors. Why make reference to Bountiful here which is currently in the news — unless its purpose is to draw on some kind of sensationalism to sell books. Publicists should stop the crass capitalistic practise of maligning and exploiting another group with the intent of selling a product and gaining a financial interest.
Upon meeting the author and studying her book, my worries passed. She led me to further research in which I found that mental illness played a major role in sabotaging Doukhobor history.

The fictitious main character, Simon Peters, is presented as a creative bookbinder in the basement of the Calgary Public Library. The story involves the tragedy of his family from natural and man-made causes.Towards the end it turns out that Simon is really Seymon, an extreme zealot from the interior of British Columbia whose family was involved in a series of disasters in the form of terrorism. The Seymon character was largely inspired by diaries that the author found in the Public Archives of Canada. It was about a troubled personality by the name of Fred N. Davidoff born in 1924 in the Cowley area of Alberta.

Around the year 2000, the author Nerys Parry first developed the Simon character, but the manuscript lay dormant for some time. In 2005-2006, Nerys and a colleague worked on a story about the effects of chemical, biological and radiological experiments in the Canadian Forces Base at Suffield, Alberta on the veterans who were used as human testers during the World War II period. When blacked out materials from RCMP records hindered the full development of the Suffield story, Nerys discovered an adjacent Davidoff File in the Archives as being a wonderful fit for Simon. The Simon story was further developed and the publisher preferred the new version. Perhaps Canada going into Afghanistan had something to do with the decision, even though the last veterans of Suffield were quickly dying out? Read more in Nerys Parry's blog: Finding Simon, and see her TV interview.

In doing my homework, I went to the Public Archives of Canada and read the three boxes of Fred N. Davidoff's files (fonds). The historic character Fred was worst than I had previously known. I already knew that Simma Holt's Terror in the Name of God: the Story of the Sons of Freedom Doukhobors (1964) was based on information that Fred Davidoff had given to this Vancouver Sun reporter. The book featured Fred as an 'Autobiography of a Fanatic'. Within several years,  Fred flip-flopped his fabricated views in order to gain parole from nine years in jail.

The result of all of this was that the Doukhobors as a whole were blackballed by Simma Holt and by her main informant Fred Davidoff with the false claim of nudity, bombings and burnings. These acts were real, but they were perpetrated by individuals who closely sided with zealotry and a few with terrorism. These acts were contrary to mainstream Doukhobor beliefs.

From his diaries and letters as well as from accounts by others, I learned that Fred N. Davidoff's behaviour was that of a classic psychopath, an extreme fanatic, a con artist who fabricated much of what he said about the Doukhobor name and thereby misled Canadian reporters. He was mentally unstable, was an informant to the police, was one who could not be trusted, and people feared him. He was a person with a vivid imagination of himself. Most damning of all was that he had a habit of slandering many innocent Doukhobor people with terrorism.

In my response to seeking justice and truth, it has taken me and several of my friends some fifty years to correct the misinformed damage that has been done by the team Simma and Fred. In a real sense, both have hijacked the Doukhobor identity.

In the conclusion of her book Man and Other Natural Disasters, Nerys Parry states: 'I would like to clarify that Simon/Seymon and his family are fictional characters, and any similarity with living or dead persons is coincidental....'

Whenever possible, Nerys stuck to some of the known facts that occurred during the turmoil in the 1950s and 1960 — such as the Polatka (tents) affair in the Kootenays in 1953, the New Denver institution for zealot kids from 1953 to 1959 (surrounded by a high wire fence), the RCMP infamous Special D. (Doukhobor) Squad, and the death of Harry Kootnikoff in 1962 while making a pocket watch bomb. All this Nerys admits in her Notes and Acknowledgements.

Obviously Nerys enjoys straddling the divide between science and fiction. This is real talent — and she is very good at it. In fact, the large part of the book on Simon Peters was so congruent that I believed him to be a bookbinder in Calgary, Alberta and that his parents were ranchers. When Simon has a complete mental breakdown and becomes Seymon in the office of a British Columbia psychiatrist, this is sudden transformation. At the end, when this split personality goes back to Calgary, as the reader, I am not sure who this real character is. Is he from Alberta or from British Columbia? Is he a passionate bookbinder or an unpredictable person? Is he a gentle pacifist or a dangerous terrorist?

To her credit as a skilled writer, Nerys Parry has minimised stereotyping the Doukhobors by avoiding the use of the name. (I found only two times the word was used in 214 pages, and one of this was in the title of a book.) Instead, Nerys has carefully used terms such as Sons of Freedom, Svobodniki, and Freedomites. Not Doukhobors. Yet, with much negative association with the past, when zealots and authors (such as Simma Holt) have hijacked the Doukhobors identity, it becomes difficult to dissociate one from the other. It is similar to the stigma that Muslims today receive from terrorists (who are not real Muslims, but terrorists).

Separating fact from fiction is a very delicate process even for a sensitive and innovative young writer such as Nerys Parry. She has done very well in this book. She has raised the bar for future writers to be very sensitive when straddling science with fiction. The book is worth a read.

Read Nerys Parry's blog about our meeting: Straddling the divides: fact, fiction and Freedomites.

Saturday, 10 December 2011

'Mutual Help Society' Proposed

Hank Hulsbergen
The following letter was submitted by Hank Hulsbergen of The Netherlands. Hank, now 60, recalls his 17-years living in Canada and especially his fond memories of Helen and John Stevenson (Argenta Quakers, British Columbia). As an innovative thinker, he suggests the creation of a Mutual Help Society a structure inspired by Peter Kropotkin as well as the Mennonite Central Committee. In his most recent letter, Hank Hulsbergen writes: 'At the end of most Unitarian services, people hold hands and sing three times "Carry the flame of Peace and Love until we meet again." Of course reading that Doukhobors aspire to Peace and Love as well fits well with that!'


Dear Koozma:

How are you? I lived in Canada for 17 years of which 10 in British Columbia. Good friends from Argenta, Helen and John Stevenson, advised me in the early 1980's to read Plakun Trava: The Doukhobors and I even received a letter from you telling about the publishing of PT. Maybe due to studies at Simon Fraser University, I decided I'll do that later. Now I'm back in the Netherlands and have recently read a lot about the Doukhobors on the Internet. The title of your book has always stayed with me.

In 1979, when the old hotel was still operating in Grand Forks, BC, I enjoyed some borshch for the first time in my life. Later, in 1998, when living in Vancouver, I helped an elderly lady move to Grand Forks and visited her a few times when on holidays from Europe. Even got to see the Doukhobor Museum [in Castlegar, BC] when it hadn't been that long open yet. From the very first time I came to Grand Forks and the Kootenays, I sensed that that area was the nicest of BC. Since I'm sensitive to "atmosphere", I have undoubtedly picked up the peaceful vibes of the people.

Back at the University of Washington in 1974 I had a Jonah Goldstein as prof for a first year course in Human Relations and Counselling Studies (HRCS) which dealt with alternative communities etc.

This HRCS program was very much inspired by the work of Carl R Rogers. His book On Becoming a Person is still wonderful to read. I find the essence of his ideas back with the lifestyle of the Doukhobors. During my University of Washington years I somehow came across Peter Kropotkin's Mutual Help [Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution] when writing an essay. Then I find out he was very much supportive of the Doukhobors.

In the last month and a half all these experiences seem to have come together and I somehow found your email address on the nice Internet site. I would still like to find a way to read Plakun Trava and perhaps other material later. Can I purchase the CD-Rom while paying with credit card? Am not totally clear on the process.

While my religious background has been with the Dutch Reformed Church, while my parents always allowed me to draw my own conclusions and have my own thoughts, in Canada I was active in various Unitarian fellowships.

In a wild moment, I thought it would be neat if Doukhobors, Unitarians, Mennonites, Hutterites and maybe others would work together to have a common "Mutual Help" society, not so different from the Mennonite Central Committee, which encourages and supports young people to do a year of voluntary service for communities and people nationally and internationally.

Having focused my study in Communication on Psychotherapy, Doukhobor communities may be best suited to help "lost" children and teenagers find their bearings again. Much like the Friendship school in Argenta saw students live with local families.

In short, reading about the Doukhobors and their lifestyle etc inspires me a great deal. If and when I come to Canada next summer I hope to spend a bit of time in the Kootenays again too.

I'm currently 60 years young and am kind of open to a change and some new things. My reason for emigration to Canada was to make myself free from the military draft at the time. This too I found to have in common with the Doukhobors. I'm working on the vegetarian bit! :)

     Hope this finds you well and happy.
     Kindest regards
     Hank Hulsbergen

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Atamanenko Tables Dept. of Peace Bill

Ottawa, ON – Alex Atamanenko, MP (BC Southern Interior), was joined at a press conference today [November 30, 2011] by fellow peace advocates, along with Elizabeth May of the Green Party and Liberal Jim Karygiannis to herald the introduction later in the day of his Private Members Bill to create a federal Department of Peace. May and Karygiannis are co-seconding the Bill. [C-373]

Left to right: Koozma J. Tarasoff, Jim Karygiannis, Alex Atamanenko,
Theresa Dunn,  Elizabeth May and Bill Bhaneja. Photo by Kristina Kristova.

Atamanenko’s bill is a slightly amended version of retired NDP MP, Bill Siksay’s bill from the last parliament, notable for the non-partisan support it had gathered.

Karygiannis says this is one issue where party politics should not get in the way. “It is time for Canada to serve the global constituency by committing to the creation of a Department of Peace.”

Elizabeth May stressed her party's continued support of this initiative. "Peace is more than the absence of war. Non-violent solutions, 'waging peace,' requires a focused investment and shift in consciousness. Even talking about a Department of Peace helps in that shift," she said.

Representatives for Canadian Department of Peace Initiative (CDPI) at the press conference described the bill as exemplifying a global movement in 30 countries promoting infrastructures of non-violent peace within governments, with Peace Ministries and Departments in three countries, most recently Costa Rica. “The bill illustrates the need to prepare for peace in the same way as we prepare for war – with adequate resources and expertise,” stated CDPI Co-Founder,
Bill Bhaneja.

“This is an opportunity to unify the millions of voices expressing a will to follow a new path where our road markers are not fear, anger and vengeful killing but rather prevention, empathy and justice for all of humanity,” declared Theresa Dunn, co-Chair for CDPI.

Doukhobor writer and historian Koozma J. Tarasoff said the need for the architecture for peace is urgent at a time when nuclear and robotic weapons are posing a threat to the world community. “As Canadians, let’s regain our status not only as a peacekeeping and peace-building nation, but also as a nonkilling one.”

“The notion that there can be peace in the world may be a utopian ideal but each generation owes it to the next to make a dedicated attempt to get as close to it as humanly possible.” concluded Atamanenko.

Bill Bhaneja's Note:

Bill Bhaneja (Co-Chair of the Ottawa Chapter, Canadian Dept. of Peace Initiative) wrote the following summary of this historic event:

'....Theresa and I were invited to attend the press conference at 1:30 pm. where Alex Atamanenko spoke about the Bill followed by Elizabeth May and Jim Karygiannis....Theresa, Koozma and I were also given our moments of fame to say a few words at the event. Overall the messages sent were solid and complementary and should have good resonance with the wide ranging peace communities....

'In the House we had a substantive representation from the Ottawa chapter of about 15 people who got to meet Alex after his introduction of the Bill and thank him for his initiative. An official transcript of the Bill will be on line in two languages soon with a designated Bill number assigned to it [C-373]. The new Bill covers all the aspects we wanted to see in it, with minor fine tuning of certain sections e.g. education responsibilities, focus on conflict prevention in R2P, and UN 1325 etc provided by us and others. Alex said  that he will need some time to focus on strategy of how to follow up on this in the Parliament, most likely after Christmas recess. In the meantime, he thought we could go ahead in using the Bill to get the message out in the public as well as to our local politicians for co-seconding the Bill. Our main task right now is to spread the message and energize the civil society and others through this Bill that the idea of DoP and Peace is feasible. Also the Bill can be helpful in fund raising with organizational endorsers. And I am not forgetting the 10,000 target petition signing.'

Koozma's Note:

This historic event impressed me in three ways:
  1. The professional and friendly manner of Alex Atamanenko and his office in getting this Bill tabled in the House. Peace is a trans-party issue. 
  2. The Liberals and the Green Party joined the NDP in this pioneering venture for a new architecture and vision for peace in the world. 
  3. The short talks emphasized the urgency of this Bill, the global nature of it (peace is everyone's business) and the need for a new way of looking at the state of our world civilization.
My own talk was as follows:

'My ancestors the Doukhobors in 1895 destroyed their guns in a mass voice to the world that the slaughter of human beings from the scourge of wars must stop once and for all. Today, modern weapons of mass destruction, esp. that of atomic bombs and robotics, threaten our world civilization with annihilation.

'Like Steve Jobs of Apple, we need to envisage a world in a totally different way so as to invigorate Canada's role as a peacekeeper and peacebuilder. The proposed Canadian Department of Peace provides the architecture for doing this — especially in promoting the transition from a war-based to a peace-based economy.

'With the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., we can say, 'We have a dream not to be killed and the responsibility not to kill another human being. We have a dream and a vision to pass along to the future generation our hope to create a nonkilling society. Now, let us support the Bill and make this vision a reality. For where there is no vision, people perish.'