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.
“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.
“The authorities didn't care if they took kids away, they were going to educate kids and make them like them,” Mr. Makortoff said.
Mr. Makortoff, who is the B.C. co-ordinator of the Council of Doukhobors in Canada, said the provincial government’s plan to reconsider an apology for the Sons of Freedom was a surprise.
“That’s interesting, it's long overdue,” Mr. Makortoff said.
Violetta Kryak reported this story as part of Langara College's Read-Mercer scholarship.