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Province finally agrees to Ombudsperson’s call to apologize for 1950s detention of Doukhobor children

Timothy Schafer Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
By Timothy Schafer Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
July 19th, 2023

An apology is officially on the way but compensation has not been confirmed to the surviving members of the West Kootenay Doukhobor community who were apprehended, institutionalized and maltreated as children in the 1950s.

In a report released Tuesday the B.C. Ombudsperson said the Provincial government’s commitment to apologize later this year to the Doukhobor community was a “momentous step.” At the same time, the Province’s inability to commit on how and if the survivors, families and communities would be compensated was a disappointing move, said Ombudsperson Jay Chalke.

“I am relieved that government has indicated in its response to this report that, this fall, it will finally apologize for its harmful actions,” he said in a press release. “This will be a welcome, albeit long-awaited, step toward justice. However, I am saddened and surprised that government is still not unequivocally committing to compensation, a critically important measure to right this historic wrong.”

Almost 50 years ago (1953-1959) around 200 children were removed, sometimes forcibly, at the direction of government — provincial, federal and the RCMP — from their parents who were Sons of Freedom Doukhobors, a group within the Doukhobor community in the West Kootenay known for their acts in opposition to government policies and regulations.

“Following the forced removal from their homes and separation from their families, many of the children were mistreated both physically and psychologically while confined over a period of six years in a former tuberculosis sanatorium in New Denver,” noted the press release.

The report, Time to Right the Wrong, was released after complaints to the Ombudsperson from survivors about government inaction, drawing upon first-person accounts from a 1999 B.C. Ombudsman investigation.

That investigation yielded five recommendations to remedy the unfairness caused by the confinement of the children and renewed the call for both an apology and compensation, to which the Province agreed to the former, not the latter. Instead, government states it is preparing a “recognition” package.

“The government has not said what it is intending to include in this package or when it will be finalized and announced,” said Chalke.

Who are the Doukhobors?

Sons of Freedom Doukhobors were a small group of Doukhobors — Russian spiritual Christians who emigrated to Canada in the early 20th century — who openly protested against

specific government policies including the requirement to send their children to public school.

The apprehension of Sons of Freedom children

On September 9, 1953, RCMP arrested 148 protestors from a tent village in Perry Siding, BC for protesting nude near a school.

The 104 children of the protestors were apprehended and taken by bus to a compound in New Denver. They were housed in what was formerly a sanatorium for tuberculosis patients.

Between 1953 and 1959, government ordered approximately 200 children to be taken from their homes. Some children were detained for up to six years under the Protection of Children Act, which gave government the legal authority to apprehend children between six and 15 who were not attending school because their parents disagreed with the school system.

Government forbade the detained children to speak or read Russian, the first and only language for many of the children, and did not provide any Russian teachers or interpreters.

Government significantly restricted and controlled the children’s access to their parents and families. Children were required to assist in the construction of a chain-link fence through which limited visits with their parents took place.

Government released children at different times over the six years with the final release of children occurring Aug. 2, 1959, after the parents of the remaining 77 children swore an oath in court to send their children to school.

Source: B.C. Ombudsperson report

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