West Kootenay Sons of Freedom Doukhobors and their descendants say an apology offered last week by the B.C. government is a good first step, but there is skepticism, disappointment and confusion over the compensation package that was announced along with it.
“The apology was good, but the proposal was not,” said New Denver School survivor Walter Perepelkin. “People are really upset because the compensation part didn’t mean anything.”
In the 1950s, approximately 200 children were taken from their parents, primarily because their parents identified as Sons of Freedom Doukhobors who opposed government policies and regulations, including refusing to send their children to public school. They were placed in government institutions such as the New Denver School, a former tuberculosis sanatorium.
While there, they were separated from their families and many endured physical and emotional abuse.
The apology was given by Attorney General Niki Sharma and came with a promise of $10 million for community programs and education aimed at providing “lasting recognition of historical wrongs” committed against the Sons of Freedom Doukhobors and their families.
Some survivors spoke to the Castlegar News on the condition their names were not published, due to fear and mistrust of the government that continues to this day.
“The government has started to listen to us,” said one survivor who was taken at age 11. “That means a lot that we are finally being heard.”
According to the Attorney General’s office, the compensation package includes $5 million to create a Sons of Freedom Doukhobor Legacy Fund to “preserve and promote the community’s cultural heritage and to support educational initiatives, cultural programs and the maintenance of cultural sites.”
Another $1.25 million is dedicated to research and archival services to “better understand the history of the Sons of Freedom Doukhobors and archive key documents and oral histories.” Finally, $3.75 million will go towards a health and wellness fund, focused on the needs of the Sons of Freedom Doukhobor community.
Paulette Gagne, whose father Peter Savinkoff passed away in 2019, said, “It’s been a long time coming and my dad waited his whole life to hear this apology. It’s a start and financial compensation for survivors living in poverty is something I think is still needed.”
But it is the vagueness of the compensation package that is causing concerns among West Kootenay survivors, who also want to see direct compensation.
Another child of a survivor said that people are very reluctant to endorse the compensation package when so few details are available.
Castlegar News asked the Attorney General’s office for clarification as to if any direct personal financial compensation would be paid. Their response was the above breakdown of the $10 million, but they did not answer the personal compensation question directly.
Survivors have been waiting more than 70 years to hear a formal recognition of the wrongs that were committed against them. The B.C. Ombudsperson released a report in 1999 calling for an apology and compensation to survivors and their descendants.
But another 24 years passed before that apology was actually issued. By this time, many of those detained children have died, while those that remain are in their mid-70s to upper-80s.
It was a July 2023 report by B.C. Ombudsperson Jay Chalke that once again brought the forgotten apology to the forefront.
The local apologies finally took place Feb. 1 in Castlegar and Feb. 2 in Grand Forks. Premier David Eby is expected to issue another apology in the provincial legislature on Feb. 27.
Approximately 275 people gathered at the Castlegar event and about 65 people attended the Grand Forks event where Sharma issued the apology.
The Attorney General’s office said media were not welcome at the event. However, a representative of Castlegar News did attend at the invitation of survivors.
The events were somber, emotional affairs featuring local dignitaries and Sharma on the platform while survivors filled front rows and their families and friends packed the remainder of the rooms. There was a mix of government formality and Doukhobor tradition.
After introductory addresses were complete, the room filled with music. The mostly Doukhobour audience recited the Lord’s Prayer in Russian and sang traditional songs.
During the apology, Sharma acknowledged the children were “mistreated both physically and psychologically” and that the government had levied fines against the Sons of Freedom group and seized communal property over infractions that included school absenteeism.
Between 1931 and 1959, hundreds of Sons of Freedom members were convicted and handed sentences of up to three years.
“This is not a proud history. The Province of British Columbia recognizes the stigma and trauma experienced by the Sons of Freedom and the broader Doukhobor community,” Sharma read from a statement delivered at the event and included in a press release distributed by her office.
“And so today, on behalf of the Province of British Columbia, we acknowledge and apologize for the past injustices that were committed by the Province of British Columbia.”
In a separate statement, Eby, who did not attend the events, said, “There is no more sacred a relationship than parent and child, and that relationship was broken for a whole community, resulting in harms that have echoed for generations. Today, we acknowledge the pain experienced by Sons of Freedom Doukhobor children and families.”
One survivor said many of his fellow survivors have lived hard lives or worked lower paying jobs without pensions. They are struggling financially and need help to support dental, vision and hearing needs. Some, like himself, are still living in their childhood homes and need money to improve their basic living conditions.
“We are all getting old. What I would appreciate is seeing money go to health supports. That would be the greatest apology to us.”
Some of those items will likely be accessible through the proposed health and wellness fund, but survivors say they would like the opportunity to decide for themselves how to spend their compensation, rather than having to ask the government for a new pair of dentures or hearing aids.
Details of the health fund and how people can access those funds have not been released. Sharma said those systems should be in place later this spring.
“Once again, people are making decisions that they think are good for us,” said a survivor.
Lorraine Saliken-Walton’s mother, father and uncle were among the children that were apprehended. “Without personal compensation,” she said, “this chapter cannot end.”
Saliken-Walton is encouraging others who are not satisfied with the compensation package to write to the attorney general.
Mark Arishenkoff, whose father was held at the New Denver School for six years, shared with Castlegar News the response he intends to send to Sharma.
“Accepting an apology is one thing, accepting compensation for wrongs committed is another. We accept that you are sorry for the wrongs that were done, but what are you going to about it?
“We know that financial compensation only goes so far to heal the hurts that have been inflicted. But financial compensation is all that can be given, because you can’t change the past.
“This will be the only way for our family members that suffered these injustices to fulfil dreams and wishes now that they wanted to provide then, but were unable to due to mental, physical, spiritual and social trauma.
“And why should the perpetrators of such misfortune be forgiven wholly when the actions of such people does not match their words. Why should the burden of bearing these mistakes fall on the shoulders of those who have already born the abuse?”
With files from reporter Karen McKinley.