Skip to main content

B.C. government reconsiders apology for Doukhobor children taken from their families in 1950s

Fred Makortoff walks in front of his log house just outside Castlegar, B.C. He was nine years old when he was seized from his family and placed with other Doukhobor children in a residential school in nearby New Denver. The provincial government seized the children as part of a crackdown in the 1950s on the Sons of Freedom, a radical Doukhobor sect.

Melissa Renwick/The 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.”

Story continues below advertisement

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.

Related: Are Doukhobors dying out? In rural B.C., a sect tries to stop their faith from fading away

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.

Story continues below advertisement

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.

Story continues below advertisement

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.

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Comments

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • All comments will be reviewed by one or more moderators before being posted to the site. This should only take a few moments.
  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed. Commenters who repeatedly violate community guidelines may be suspended, causing them to temporarily lose their ability to engage with comments.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.
Cannabis pro newsletter