The Doukhobors in Canada From 1953 – The New Denver History and Background

Royal BC Museum

This article is linked to the Appendices of my new novel, ‘The Kissing Fence’ (Caitlin Press, 2020).

September 9, 1953:  Several hundred people, adults and children, gathered in a field at Perry Siding, just south of Slocan Lake, in southeast British Columbia, an area known as the Kootenays.  They had erected a village of tents and within the prayer tent the younger children watched and listened to their parents in song.  Meanwhile, a detachment of Royal Canadian Mounted Police assembled at the edge of the field.  Some accounts suggest they drank beer and threw their empty bottles into the field as the watched.  Perhaps it was to fortify them for the task to come.  They marched on the group, carrying batons, and began striking those in the tent village, who cried out and fell bleeding.  It was mayhem.  The children, believing their parents were being slaughtered, slipped under the skirt of the tent and ran for the trees, screaming for their lives.  No-one offered resistance.  They were naked and posed no threat.  The adults were arrested for nudity, leaving children without parents.  Those children who were caught were also taken into custody.

Fifteen months later, in the early morning of 18thJanuary, 1955, the RCMP entered the village of Krestova and outlying buildings, not far from Perry Siding.  It was unusually warm for a clear night but still cold enough to keep thick snow on the ground.  The raid commenced with military precision, the storming of homes, shocking the occupants with batons on doors, flashlights and heavy boots banging on the wooden floors of communal homes.  Children screamed in terror and hid under their beds.  They were right to be afraid.  They had seen their elders beaten and friends taken at Perry Siding and, on this occasion, it was the children the police had come for.

It was the beginning of ‘Operation Krestova’ or ‘Operation Snatch’ as it became known, the mere title of which conveys the cruelty of intent and insensitivity of execution.  Uniformed men grabbed ankles and arms, and children were yanked from their beds and hiding places, still in sleeping garb.  Those gripped by mothers and fathers clung on for dear life until the armed men pried them away amid wailing and shouting.  Grandparents were lashed with riding crops to subdue their protests and others were wrestled into the snow.  Parents suppressed their own horror to pacify their children, before handing them over to strange men, without breakfast or any idea of where they were being taken.  Some of the children are reported to have reassured their parents, in order to stop the parents crying.  Anyone reading the personal accounts of the mothers of these children cannot help but be profoundly moved.  It was not the first time children had been taken, or even the second.  Two decades earlier more than 350 children had been taken from their parents and distributed among foster homes, orphanages, and mental hospitals.  Some went for adoption. Parents spent terms of up to three years imprisonment on Piers Island, off the east coast of Vancouver Island, also for nudity.  Three nursing infants were removed from their mothers and looked after by prison authorities, meeting their deaths, without explanation or consequence.

On this occasion forty children between the ages of five and fifteen were bundled into vehicles and driven away to a place called New Denver on Slocan Lake; a place where those with tuberculosis among the Japanese families, interred during WWII, were sent for convalescence.  They joined those who remained of the 104 children and mothers taken in the Perry Siding raid of 1953.  The mothers and some of those children had been released or transferred to other establishments before the new consignment arrived.  Curiously, even after the parents of the Perry Siding raid were released from prison, there children were detained, without proper authority; an error corrected by the courts some years later.

Word spread quickly, the children became better at hiding and government forces had to plan carefully and deploy substantial resources to apprehend them.  Over the next few years the remaining children were hunted like animals.

Once found and placed in New Denver the children were subjected to a harsh regime of school and containment in which every aspect of their culture and language was discouraged with beatings and denigration.  Even contact with parents and their Christian worship was discouraged.  The abuse of these children cannot be calculated.  Some were physically abused, a few were sexually abused and all were emotionally abused.  Many remained defiant and expressed this by speaking their mother tongue, communicating secretly, being unhelpful and mischievous, even when it incurred physical beatings with leather straps.  They found pleasure in secrecy, circumventing rules and destruction of property.  The subterfuge and resistance bonded them against Canadian authority in a way that would emerge years later and which was entirely predictable.

The children who evaded capture also suffered.  Some as young as six years old spent their days in the woods, often alone, returning only when the risk of police coming again had gone.   Some evaded capture for five years.  Some were so traumatized by this that they asked their parents to allow them to be caught. It was just too hard to be frightened and stay vigilant to capture for so long, as a child.

This is not the dreadful tale of aboriginal children being removed from their families and put in residential schools, now familiar within Canada and elsewhere, although it has nearly every element of similarity. This is the story of a splinter group of Doukhobor Russian immigrants; a pacifist, agricultural, religious group. In the 1800’s their humility of faith separated them from the grandeur of the Orthodox Church in Russia and their pacifism incurred the wrath of the Czar who was entrenched in the Ottoman-Russian wars and demanded military conscription.  They had to leave Russia to survive and keep their faith.

Their arrival in Canada, in 1899, was negotiated between the Canadian Government, the Doukhobors and Leo Tolstoy who, between them, raised nearly all of the cost.  The first 7500 Doukhobors arrived in Halifax and Quebec on either SS Huron or SS Superior, each making two trips, one of which was to Cyprus to pick up Doukhobors from failing settlements there.  The immigrants accepted the certainty of an understanding with the Canadian Minister of the Interior, Clifford Sifton.  They were exempt from military service, had complete independence in the organization of their community, and would receive large blocks of land in what would become Saskatchewan where they could live according to their customs. They would not have come without this understanding.

In 1905 Frank Oliver replaced Sifton and disavowed the agreement, insisting that Doukhobors accept conventional citizenship, or the land would be taken from them.  The mechanism of doing this derived from the pretext of land Title having to be signed by the individuals who worked it.  Of course individual Title to the land had not been signed as it was granted to the community of Doukhobors.  However, some then signed individual Title papers and stayed, while many (two thirds) did not, abandoning farms, factories and mills, and moved to British Columbia between 1908 and 1913.  They were suspicious of all government and Frank Oliver’s betrayal of them confirmed their fears of the Canadian version.  Nothing of what happened next was likely to reduce this suspicion.

The BC provincial government betrayed them similarly before WWII, albeit with the help of financial problems among the Doukhobors. It is estimated that the land that was removed from the community, which had been developed by the Doukhobors, was worth $6,000,000, in payment of a debt of just $300,000.  It was a calculated foreclosure designed to crush a culture and bring them to a state of helplessness.  The injustice provoked much of the antagonism that occurred subsequently between government of British Columbia and Doukhobors and led, once again, to the fragmenting of this community.

In Russia, in Saskatchewan and in British Columbia the group was divided into those that were willing to accommodate some of the demands of governments and those that were not.  In each case, those holding to beliefs and agreements were seen as troublesome and moved on.

To an outsider, they behaved against their own interests in ways that defied comprehension, although a little research gives meaning to their forms of protest and reveals their neediness of good leadership and willingness to naively trust in that authority.  It was this naivety of a largely uneducated people that was to prove their vulnerability.  Not long after arriving in Canada a small portion of Doukhobors, following what they believed to be spiritual guidance, burned their buildings, allowed animals to wander off, stripped naked and heaped their cloths on the fires of their own homes.  Then they set off walking in freezing conditions, naked and in large numbers, shocking the sensibilities of the Canadian-English community.  It caused the authorities to anticipate large numbers of deaths from exposure.  Lost in the notion of ‘protest’ is the association of nudity and faith.  Being naked in front of God is also an enacted symbol of true faith in the Doukhobor culture. They become naked not simply as a matter of protest, but also to demonstrate humility and religious devotion as a community, often at times of despair or joy.   For example, as children were released from New Denver in 1959, joyful mothers embraced them nude.

So shocking were these protests featuring nudity that the penalty for nudity was raised from three months to three years imprisonment. It was this that led to 352 children being taken in 1932, because their parents were imprisoned under this law. When the parents were released, they were embittered and even more suspicious of officialdom, and who could blame them.  However, this had the effect of dividing the Doukhobor community still further.  Those released had nowhere to return to and were rejected by the orthodox Doukhobors.  Many returners gathered in Krestova and began assembling a community again, but suspicion of all outsiders was high.

These were the last shard of a splintering community, known as the Freedomites, or Sons of Freedom, who were determined to hold to their original values.  In their struggle, they lost their way and became entangled in protest, as those who are rendered helpless are prone to do, and perhaps the distinction between protest and devotion had become blurred, even to them.

It has been argued that the goal of Freedomite leadership was to provoke the Canadian government into repatriating them to Russia through a campaign of civil disobedience and terrorism.  It was an idea that first emerged in 1906 following Frank Oliver’s betrayal of the original agreement with the immigrants, but came to nothing. It resurfaced again within the Freedomites during the time of Stephan Sorokin’s leadership, from 1949.  Sorokin dismissed the idea and later relented, allowing a visitation by Sons of Freedom to Russia, which also came to nothing.  There were unsuccessful efforts to find another country in which the Sons of Freedom could live according to their customs. From this a prophecy emerged that their stay in Canada was always going to be temporary and that the only way migration, perhaps to Russia, would be achieved is through the prisons.  By committing acts of civil disobedience and being sent to prison in large numbers, the Canadian government would be minded to send them elsewhere.  It is unclear if this was some kind of spiritual prophecy or a prediction of how things would turn out.  In any case it does appear to have been used as guidance to the Sons of Freedom by their leadership to commit acts of terror.  The majority were passive in this, complying with orders to avoid being shunned.  For others it vented their anger.

There may have been some wanting to return Russia, but it is an absurd proposition made popular in the late 1960’s by Simma Holt’s myopic, sensationalist book, “Terror in the Name of God”.  Half a century had passed since the Doukhobor arrival in Canada and the Freedomite leadership would have known the events in Russia meant more government interference than in Canada. Doukhobors shared attitudes with Soviet Russia in respect of the communal ownership of land, but not state ownership of land.  It is questionable if the Soviet notion of religious freedom was compatible with Doukhoborism, and certainly nationalism and militarism were fundamentally opposed to their view.  Russia would never have allowed the Freedomites to return without their commitment to Soviet authority, which they would never have given.  In any case, the majority of incidents of burning buildings and destroying of property in Canada were against their own property or that of orthodox Doukhobors.  None of this could be construed as increasing leverage for returning to Russia.  The idea of repatriation to the motherland was merely a distraction of a desperate people, and a means of using them by leaders with unclear motives.

It is more likely that the Freedomites had three aims from which they had not wavered.  To remain true to their faith, to maintain the principles of agreement with Canada as they were originally understood, and to resist the inclination of the majority of Doukhobors to concede to provincial demands.  It was doomed from the start, although each was a righteous cause. Determining what was consistent with their faith was a constant process of interpretation and debate.  Breaking with their pacifist principles to achieve the ambition of continued pacifism of their community is just one of the inherent contradictions they blundered into without enlightened leadership.  The Federal government had no interest in reinforcing their commitment to the original agreement and the resolve and inhumanity of the provincial government had been underestimated.  Finally, the majority of Doukhobors did not want to antagonize local government and risk being displaced again, for a fourth time in 50 years.  They had come to the end of struggling and seemed willing to work along side the Canadian-English, preserving what they could of their culture and ways while stopping short of assimilation.  Life was good enough to resist the insistence of Freedomites to remain true to original Doukhobor principles as the Freedomites saw them.

Thankfully, in recent years a healing process has brought the factions closer but, more importantly, none of the struggle and politics of the time justifies what happened to these innocent children.  Their incarceration caused untold emotional harm, social upheaval and fueled another round of discontent.

Finally, on July 31st1959, at Nelson Court, a group of Freedomite mothers came to a resolution with the Province, by swearing an oath, agreeing to the government’s demands that had been used to justify the children’s detention.  What was the compelling reason to separate children from their families?  What was the terrible danger that justified yanking them from their beds and winkling them out of their hiding places?  What was the profound concession these mothers had to accept in order to have their children returned?  They agreed, contrary to the original agreement of their immigration, that their children attend government school for public education, rather than education at home or the Russian schooling the community had provided. Nothing more.  The last 77 children at New Denver were finally released from incarceration on August 2nd1959. Some of the mothers greeted their children’s release at the gates of New Denver Dormitory by stripping naked, enveloping the children with fulsome embraces, planting kisses on their cheeks. Some of the children, having been in custody from the initial raid, five and a half years earlier, were shocked and confused by this expression of joy.  It was a measure of how confused they had become of their cultural identity and how much of what they had endured had distorted the values their community would have fostered. Their struggle was not over.

The community had endured decades of struggle and terror. Now they were infused with a large group of angry young people willing to be militant.  The injuries incurred by the New Denver experience tumbled through the years and the anger of these children found expression in violence in the early 1960’s.  Two hundred and forty Doukhobor men, perhaps as many as one hundred graduates of New Denver, were subsequently sentenced to long prison terms for acts of arson and causing explosions.  It is unknown what the mental health legacy was among this group, but it is known that some died in prison, others moved away, changed their names to escape their heritage, now too closely associated with hurt to allow solace in returning. Those close to that community have said that they know of no one who was not profoundly affected by what happened to them at New Denver.  Many were lost to their culture and to themselves.

However, this book is not simply about the Freedomites.  It is a story of how we become what we are, from generations ago; how our sense of self and place in the world is corrupted with the destruction of lineage and continuity.  We see this plainly enough among displaced peoples and aboriginal cultures around the world, but it is true of all of us.  If we look carefully we can find that thread, drawn through years, decades, and generations before us, which influences the choices we make everyday.

The threads are increasingly difficult to hold in a modern world in which the values of individuality, opportunity and greed soar over those found among the Doukhobor people; those of community, responsibility and obligation.  It is uncommon to contemplate those threads being cut or discarded, but it is happening everywhere we look.  The choices we make are no longer guided by the implicit measurement of history, the values of generations or family.  We are no longer motivated or constrained by what might affect, for good or ill, the community we live in.  Instead we nurture the entitlement of acting in our own interests, rejoice in our cunning manipulation of truth.  It has become child’s play to resist the influence of expectation that might be imposed on us by what is right and wrong.

Without the burden of moral or community expectations, financial and material success is possible, and perhaps even more likely, but what do we become?  Along with this ‘success’ comes profound human failure, loss and confusion of an existential kind.  The question of this book is, what does it take to see this kind of failure coming and avert the disaster of existential crisis.  What stops us from letting go of what we think is important, in favor of what is important?

I hope this book may raise again the issue of reconciliation between the people of Canada and British Columbia on one side, and Doukhobors on the other, especially the New Denver survivors.  The original wrong, in Canada and BC, has been the treatment of the Doukhobor people as a whole.  The tension between the Sons of Freedom and the orthodox Doukhobors is a painful distraction from the first truth of this injustice.  Saying this does not diminish the hurt and injustice experienced by the New Denver children, but it would never have happened without the betrayal of all the Doukhobor people in Canada and BC.

As is so often the case, it has been the victims of this situation who have reached out to the perpetrators of wrong doing, for reconciliation.  While the Doukhobor people now live easily and productively in Canada the legacy of the past stays with them.  They still wait for an appropriate response from the BC and Canadian Governments. Every child knows how this must begin. You must say ‘sorry’ for the wrong that has been done.

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