Thursday, 24 May 2012

Review of News Article about
Residential School Apology

Forcibly taking children from parents is a traumatizing experience whether this be for Native children or that of the Sons of Freedom in the Kootenays of British Columbia. I fully sympathize for the fate of these children.

An article 'Doukhobors want apology from B.C. government,' by Kalyeena Makortoff, published this week in newspapers across Canada, deserves comment.

First the Globe and Mail shows a photo of John J. Verigin as if he was leader of the Sons of Freedom. He was not. Compare to the excellent photo in the Toronto Star below by Peter Savinkoff which really tells a story in one image.

Second, the story dealt with the 170 survivors of the New Denver School and Dormitory for zealot children, British Columbia, who went through various forms of trauma from 1953 to 1959. In early February of this year, a group calling itself the New Denver Survivors Collective argued before the British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal that the government has unjustly refused to apologize to the zealot parents. They also pointed out to the hefty compensation packages doled out to other groups who faced abuse at BC-run residential schools as unfair.

Ultimately, the group wants the government to carry out recommendations put forward by a 1999 B.C. Ombudsman report, which called for an unconditional, clear and public apology. The human-rights-tribunal ruling is expected late this summer.

In the 1950s, the zealot parents were given the choice of home schooling using local Doukhobor teachers. However, they chose not to because they were against formal education as well as against governments collecting basic statistics on births, marriages and deaths.

In reaction, the BC Government of the day headed by Premier W.A.C. Bennett, took 'a get-tough' policy of forcibly teaching the children at a special location in New Denver, BC at the site where Japanese Canadians were earlier interned during World War II.  Periodic raids by RCMP on truant children became a routine occurrence as zealots soon developed atrocity stories and new myths. The experiment in re-charting children (which went against the recommendations of the Hawthorn Committee) was termed 'a disastrous failure'.

A comment in the email section of the Globe and Mail, May 22, 2012, by 'Castle1946', states the situation correctly:

'....These were innocent children, victims of their own parents' misguided belief system. The blame, therefore, lies solely with these fanatical parents who made incredibly bad choices, and did not act in the best interests of their children. They used their children as pawns in their fanaticism and rebellion against the government. When the parents of these children and what is left of the Sons of Freedom community apologize to their own children first, and then apologize to me and others in my Doukhobor community who, as children, were traumatized by their terrorist activities, then and only then should the government proceed with apologies on its part if it deems it fitting.'

Another comment comes from Annie Barnes of Alberta, who wrote a letter to the editor of The Province, but it was not published. Annie is a former hospital equipment planner and author. Here is her letter:

Dear Editor:

The innocent children of New Denver paid the price for their Sons of Freedom parents' often misguided and misunderstood beliefs. No question, we have empathy for them. However, innocent children of Orthodox and Independent Doukhobor parents also paid the price for many years due to the actions and publicity about the Sons of Freedom sect.

Orthodox villages were set aflame while these children slept. Their parents were constantly vigilant, on guard, fearful their home could be next.

Independent Doukhobor children and young adults were all tainted in the media by the actions and demonstrations of the Sons of Freedom sect, often stopped and searched during roadblocks because our names ended in Off. In the fifties and sixties, even the seventies, we were sometimes denied our rightful place in society or the community or the university because of the actions and demonstrations of this sect.

Early non-Doukhobor immigrants were often denied many privileges given to others born in Canada. Should everyone ask for an apology, or should we, as pacifist Doukhobors forgive ourselves and others as we were taught to do by our forefathers?

Yours very truly,
Annie B. Barnes

The question of forgiveness and compensation should be critically looked at before any public apology and compensation are considered. This is not to downplay the innocent. The trauma for many of the children (now adults) was no doubt monumental. Their parents ought to take at least some responsibility for that choice. However, the broader victims — the wider Doukhobor community—deserve an apology (and possibly compensation) as well. It would be fundamentally unjust for government to single out the extremists in helping them to rewrite and hijack the wider Doukhobor history. To do so would be a frontal attack on the integrity of the whole Doukhobor Movement.


  1. And compensation for land losses resulting in hundreds of thousands of acres, use it towards cultural programs and economic progression, I would advise the USCC and other groups to take a look into what Cheif Clarence Louie of the Osoyoos Indian Band does for his people

  2. Thank you Koozma and Annie for your rational analysis of the situation. I now hope that you and many others can send articles to ISKRA. The last issue was abominable and insulting to many of us that suffered depridations from these fanatical parents as well. The innocent interned New Denver children were pawns in their parents fanatical beliefs. The parents, clearly, had rational choices, as you say, but they were unable to make them for their own selfish reasons. The children should first look internally for a solution to their problems...first an apology from their parents.

  3. Kalyeena Makortoff26 May 2012 at 23:51


    Interesting analysis.

    It seems a part of the article was misinterpreted, however:

    "In early February of this year, a group calling itself the New Denver Survivors Collective argued before the British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal that the government has unjustly refused to apologize to the zealot parents."

    The group is made up of survivors of New Denver, and they themselves are looking for an apology. Their parents are not involved as far as I am aware.

    All the best,

  4. Hello Koozma, I am interested in your statement that "In the 1950s, the zealot parents were given the choice of home schooling using local Doukhobor teachers." Is there evidence of this that can be accessed?

  5. The descendents of the Sons of Freedom sect have launched an action through B.C.’s Human Rights Tribunal demanding an apology from the B.C. government for using the police to force them into a residential school in New Denver back in the 1950s.

    I have two questions to ask the plaintiffs in this case. Why didn’t your parents just send you to school when you were kids? Didn’t your parents want you to learn English like everyone else in this country?

    The Sons of Freedom left the Prairies and quit being Doukhobors (my people) to continue living the way our ancestors did back in Russia. Why go to such lengths to escape oppression in Czarist Russia only to attempt to re-create our Old-World existence here in the New World?

    For my great grandparents and their children, adopting the language and ways of our new culture, for the most part, came naturally. Sure, it was difficult for some, and learning a new language is never easy. But my predecessors knew that after being rescued by Queen Victoria (who had been petitioned by none other than Leo Tolstoy to help us), and after receiving free land, we owed at least some debt of gratitude to Canada. Not so for the Sons of Freedom.

    They claimed children were being taught militarism in Canadian schools; an absurd notion, largely based on the fact that portraits of England’s King and Queen hung in public schools, just as they do to this day. But to hear my dad and granddad explain it, rural schooling in the 1950s comprised entirely of reading, writing and arithmetic, precisely the type of learning we had been denied when we were illiterate peasants back in Russia!

    But, alas, to the recalcitrant Sons of Freedom it all had to be escaped. And, once established in the Interior of B.C., they went as far as to burn down their own property, blow up public property, and march in the nude, just to demonstrate their rejection of all that was Canadian. This was quite embarrassing for those of us who stayed in the Prairies.

    But it was the refusal to send their children to school that really set the communal Sons of Freedom apart from independent Doukhobors like my grandparents.

    To this day, failing to send a child to school is not taken lightly by officials, and rightly so. But for the Sons of Freedom it was their way or the highway. And that brings us to where this story began… to the point where the Royal Canadian Mounted Police were called upon by provincial authorities here in B.C. to take children away simply so they could be educated, and not be radicalized like their parents whose actions, let’s face it, often amounted to terrorism, plain and simple.

    Quite unlike this country’s First Nations’ people who had no choice whatsoever in being forced to watch as their kids were taken away to residential schools, sometimes never to be seen again, the Sons of Freedom had a choice.

    Try to imagine sticking to your guns on a matter of principle and not being willing to concede, not one iota, as your own flesh and blood was being ripped away from you. Wouldn’t you at least consider conceding the point?

    While my grandparents and every other independent Doukhobor that stayed in Saskatchewan embraced education, the Sons of Freedom were antagonistically intent on rejecting it, so much so that they were willing to let their own children be taken away just to demonstrate their resolve. Shameful!

    So again I ask the plaintiffs… Why didn’t your parents concede when the police arrived, and agree to send you to school?

    There is no valid claim here. The people who ran B.C.’s Ministry of Education so long ago did the right thing. The issue is, quite clearly, with the parents of the plaintiffs.

    Mischa Popoff, Osoyoos, British Columbia, is a writer of Doukhobor descent with a degree in history.

  6. I am new to this blog, but I have lived 2 summers in the Castlegar/Grandforks area and I try to visit there when I can to get to know the people there better as well as reading what is available . I have spent many hours discussing the topics in this blog with many people in the area. I havent been able to meet or visit the people in the New settlement or Gilpin. If anybody is interested in meeting next summer in the area and exchanging a few emails before then, I would be interested in doing that. Paul Bruhn