British Columbia Attorney General Issues Apology and $10 Million Compensation Package to Doukhobors for Historical Wrongs

Over fifty years since the forced removal of hundreds of children from their homes to residential schools, the religious group with roots in Russia, known as Doukhobors, was continuing to demand an apology from the British Columbia government. Today, they finally received the long-awaited apology.

Doukhobor Discovery Centre. Castlegar.

Who are Doukhobors? In the early 20th century, a community of exiled Russian Christians known as the Doukhobors established themselves in the West Kootenay region of British Columbia. The name “Doukhobor” translates to “Spirit Wrestlers” in Russian.

Violetta Kryak, my friend, authored two articles on the Doukhobors for The Globe and Mail, generously granting me permission to feature it on my website.


More than a century ago, worshippers banished from Russia came to the West Kootenays to practice their religion freely. Now, elders are struggling to stop the decline of their Old World ways and language.

PUBLISHED IN SEPTEMBER 9, 2018 (Globe and Mail)

After working all day as a biomedical field-service representative, repairing hospital equipment like ultrasound and MRI machines, Shane Whittleton returns to his rural home in southeastern British Columbia.
The 26-year-old steps away from his day job into a life much closer to his roots growing up in Uteshenie, a Doukhobor village near Castlegar in B.C.’s West Kootenays.
“I go plant the grass, weed the garden, make sure my tomatoes are alive, check my trees, make sure all the fruit has no weeds in it and then as soon as that’s all done, I start doing landscaping and make my home better,” Mr. Whittleton said.
For Mr. Whittleton, this daily routine is an essential part of living as a Doukhobor. He tries to attend as many community events and prayer meetings as he can and every night he says a prayer before bed. Right now, he is trying to master his Russian, because he believes knowing the language is crucial to understanding of culture’s history. He moved to Alberta to work and study in 2011, but returned a year ago because he wanted to be closer to the land.
“I live on acreage now. For me, it’s in my blood to live like that and I long for it,” Mr. Whittleton said. “There is something about pollen, weeding your garden, watching your plants grow, it really puts in perspective life in general.”
Mr. Whittleton is one of a dwindling number of Canadian Doukhobors who still observe the religion and its culture more than a century after his ancestors were expelled from Imperial Russia. While there are an estimated 65,000 people of Doukhobor descent living in Canada today, only 2,290 listed Doukhobor as their religion in the 2011 Census – as younger people grow disinterested in the religion, lose their connection to the Russian language or move away from their close-knit villages in rural B.C.

Doukhobor Discovery Centre. Castlegar.

Many elders predict the Doukhobors could die out altogether in a little more than a decade – a dire forecast that is driving a new effort to save the culture from extinction, while revealing divisions within the community about what modern Doukhoborism should look like.
The Doukhobors were banished from Russia in the late 19th century, after facing persecution from the Tsarist government because of their rejection of Russian Orthodoxy and its priesthood, rituals and icons. Doukhobors consider themselves Christians, as their religious ideology is derived mainly from the teachings of Jesus Christ. However, they don’t consider the Bible to be a “holy” book, but rather a preservation of previous knowledge.
About 5,000 Doukhobors resettled in B.C. in 1908 in the area around Castlegar, where they became known for their pacifism, a cappella singing and communal way of life. An extremist arm of B.C.’s Doukhobors called the Sons of Freedom made headlines in the 1950s when their children were seized by the RCMP and placed in a government-run school.

Today, their settlements around Castlegar are reminiscent of Russian villages. It’s not uncommon to hear threads of conversation in a mix of Russian, Ukrainian and Georgian. Even the lilac that grows in the area – distinct from the kind found in Vancouver – was supposedly brought from Russia by the first Doukhobors.
Their homes, especially those of old Doukhobors, still have a traditional, old Russian look inside: Wooden sideboards filled with books and glass goblets, wool carpets on the floor and old family portraits on the walls. Every home has the psalm “Be Devout” framed on the wall.
Each Sunday, the Doukhobors gather for prayer at their community house or on the lawn outside. A table is set with bread, salt and water, which are Doukhobor symbols of “toil and peaceful life.” Women stand on one side with shawls covering their heads, and men on the other side wear kosovorotki, a traditional shirt hand-sewn from hemp.
After they sing psalms in Russian, each bows to the person next to them, recognizing the spirit of God, which Doukhobors believe is within the heart and soul of every human being.

Concerns about the future of these communities came to a head earlier this year at the annual celebration for Doukhobors of B.C., the Union of Youth Festival, held in May. In addition to the traditional a capella concert and a prayer meeting, organizers added a new element to the program: A workshop to discuss the community’s future. They called it “Spirit Wrestlers 2050” – a reference to a quote by writer Leo Tolstoy, who helped their immigration to Canada, where he said that Doukhobors are “people of the 25th century.”
About 150 people attended the workshop. Participants, mostly elders, were given a grim forecast: It’s estimated that by 2030, the number of people who identify as Doukhobor will be zero.
“Quite a few of the elder members didn’t even want this topic discussed, said it’s kind of a disgrace to discuss it, because that’s acknowledging that it’s a dying breed in a sense,” Mr. Whittleton said.
Participants brainstormed ways to keep people from leaving Doukhobor communities or to keep them connected if they do.
Pitches included developing economic opportunities in the communities to give young people a reason to stay, similar to the Brilliant Jam Factory in Brilliant, B.C., in the early 1900s, where most of the local Doukhobors worked. But there are obstacles. The Union of Spiritual Communities of Christ (USCC), the Doukhobors’ governing body, owns a significant amount of farmland in the Kootenays, but because the USCC is a charitable organization, children and grandchildren cannot make a profit from the land unless they rent it from the USCC at fair market value, which is often prohibitively expensive for young adults.

Doukhobor Discovery Centre. Castlegar.

For those who leave, Gary Kooznetsoff, a Doukhobor and software engineer, proposed developing an online platform to connect Doukhobors scattered around the country.
Since the workshop, people in the community are working on their own ideas. John J. Verigin, Doukhobor leader and executive director of the USCC, has proposed to host a conference of Doukhobor youth from all over the world in 2020 to allow them to consider their future independently from elders. The leaders of Doukhobor communities, most elders are adamant about maintaining tradition and skeptical of any radical changes to their way of life.
“I’ve become okay with the fact that Doukhoborism as we’ve known it is probably at its end and I’m working on taking the legacy forward,” Mr. Kooznetsoff said.
Kelly Makortoff, 33, grew up in a Doukhobor household, but said she was not immersed in the culture. She often felt disconnected because she didn’t speak Russian, which meant she didn’t understand the psalms she was forced to memorize as a kid for molenia, the weekly prayer meeting.
“I can never show up at molenia and be comfortable,” she said. “I think that has a huge thing to do with language though, because when you lose the language I think that’s where the soul goes out of it.”
Growing up, she always wanted to speak the language and be involved in the Doukhobor culture, but it seemed to conflict with the routine of going to high school. She saw it as a choice between one lifestyle or the other.

Doukhobor Discovery Centre. Castlegar.

She thanked her grandparents and large family gatherings in their wooden log house for the fact that she is still involved in the community and understands the Doukhobor principles on a spiritual level. But to her, being a Doukhobor in the fullest sense also requires keeping up the material traditions and practices.

“I think the material things are stronger symbolism of culture,” Ms. Makortoff said. “Rather than outwardly acting the physical culture of being a Doukhobor, I am spiritually living it in a more independent way. I would love to have both.”
For many people in the community, being a practicing Doukhobor means participating in community gatherings, being involved in a choir and regularly attending prayer meetings.
But Ms. Makortoff’s grandfather, Fred, disagrees that Doukhoborism depends on what he considers material things. He said the youth will only be able to carry the culture forward if they focus on the spiritual aspects, rather than just customs and traditions.
“If they have the spirit, that part in them, it will succeed. If they do it just on a secular level and change habits and how we do things, it’ll be just changing one form to another form, no spiritual development and that’s what the Doukhobors need at this point in time,” Mr. Makortoff said.
He’s witnessed fundamental changes in the community: From the loss of language and changing dress codes for traditional ceremonies to a shift in the mindsets of young Doukhobors.
“The trajectory seems to be inexorably set for the sect known as ‘The Doukhobors’ to soon become a footnote in history,” he said. “Unless something happens, unless there is a change.”


PUBLISHED SEPTEMBER 9, 2018 (Globe and Mail)

Bill Barisoff was eight years old when he heard the door of his family’s home in Krestova, B.C., coming down and an array of flashlights flooding in.

“There was no knock, nothing,” Mr. Barisoff, now 72, recalled about the day the RCMP took him from his family.

“Dad got up, they picked him up, and one guy held him against the wall, his feet weren’t touching the ground. He held him against the wall for maybe 15 minutes until mother dressed me.”

Mr. Barisoff was one of more than 200 Doukhobor children in southeastern British Columbia who were seized from their parents and placed in the New Denver residential school in the 1950s. They have spent decades asking for apologies and compensation from the provincial government, which has repeatedly refused. But the provincial government is now revisiting the issue.

“Government is considering the issue of a formal apology to the New Denver survivors,” Attorney-General David Eby said in a statement.

His office declined to elaborate on what options the government is looking at, including whether it is considering compensation.

The families targeted by the seizures were part of the Sons of Freedom, a radical sect of Doukhoborism, whose members used bombings, arson and nudity to protest the government’s intrusion into their lives. They represented a small subset of the overall Doukhobor population, a religious group that settled in southeastern British Columbia and Saskatchewan after they were banished from Russia in the late 19th century for their pacifist views, rejection of the Orthodox Church and refusal to participate in the military.

The provincial government targeted the Sons of Freedom over their refusal to send their children to school, and in 1953 invoked the Protection of Children Act. The law allowed the police to apprehend anyone under 18 who was not enrolled in school.

On Sept. 9 of that year, the RCMP arrested Doukhobor adults for parading nude near a school. They also seized 104 children and took them to the New Denver school, located about 100 kilometres north of Castlegar. After subsequent raids by the RCMP, a total of about 200 children went through New Denver in the course of six years.

They lived in New Denver and walked to school every day. Most didn’t know any English, but they were not allowed to speak Russian. Parents were allowed one-hour visits every two weeks; those visits included prayer meetings, which cut into the time the parents could spend interacting with the children.

Kathleen Makortoff, now 70, hid for three years day and night before she was caught when she was 8.

Doukhobor Discovery Centre. Castlegar.

“Sometimes in the closet, sometimes in the crawl space, sometimes in the attic, sometimes in the barn in the hay loft above, sometimes in the forest, sometimes in the cemetery, sometimes next door, sometimes grandparents took me to their place, for a while I lived there, but I still hid … sometimes in the washing machine,” Ms. Makortoff said.

When the hiding game was over, she was brought to a courthouse along with six other children where they stood in front of a judge; each one said their name, age and they were “sentenced” to New Denver until they were 15.

The New Denver students and their parents alleged mental and physical abuse, both from staff and by other students. The provincial ombudsman report notes students recalled bullying and physical attacks by their peers. When it came to discipline, corporal punishment and beatings were rampant. Staff used the strap with “disturbing” frequency. The children were instructed to box and wrestle, even though the children’s families were pacifists. They were put to work cleaning and maintaining the school grounds, which made some of the children feel as though they were in a “continuous state of punishment,” the report said.

All of the children were released and returned home on Aug. 2, 1959, after their parents swore an oath in court promising to send them to school.

The provincial ombudsman reviewed the Sons of Freedom case in 1999 and issued a report that concluded the actions of the government to be “unjust, oppressive and otherwise wrong.” The report called for an unconditional, clear and public apology, as well as compensation for the New Denver survivors.

But the provincial government instead issued a “statement of regret” in 2004 and stopped short of a full apology. Then-attorney-general Geoff Plant said the children were seized as part of an attempt to prevent “widespread civil disorder.” Mr. Plant declined a request for an interview.

In 2012, a group called the New Denver Survivors Collective, which Mr. Barisoff was a part of, filed a lawsuit against the government. Mr. Barisoff said the Collective lost the case after their lawyer resigned during the final court meeting in Vancouver.

Fred Makortoff, who was nine years old when he was placed in the New Denver School, said the seizure was an attempt to assimilate the children and strip them of individuality.

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