The lost children of British Columbia

SIDNEY KATZ May 11 1957

The lost children of British Columbia

SIDNEY KATZ May 11 1957

The lost children of British Columbia

SIDNEY KATZ

Canada’s strangest children's residence is the New Denver Dormitory, hidden away on a lake surrounded by mountains two hundred and sixty air miles northeast of Vancouver. Within its walls, for the past four years, an unusual experiment has been in progress.

The subjects of the experiment are a hundred children between seven and fifteen. The children were taken from their parents and brought here by RCMP officers. They remain at the Dormitory until they are fifteen. They are not permitted to go home. They are discouraged from speaking Russian, the tongue most familiar to them. They receive no holidays and they are not allowed to visit people in New Denver. Five days a week they attend classes in the town public school. But the rest of their time

without father or mother.

so the government looks up these youngsters for eight years

behind a steel-mesh fence

Here’s the little-known story of

is ordinarily spent within the wire enclosure that surrounds the Dormitory or in the fields adjacent to it.

The occupants of the New Denver Dormitory are the school-aged children of the Sons of Freedom, the extremist faction of the Doukhobors. The children are the victims of a confiict between fanatical religious convictions and the laws that make school attendance compulsory.

The Sons of Freedom refuse to send their children to school because their faith forbids it. “We’d sooner die,” they say. The government insists that they obey the law and give their children an education. “No exceptions can be made," says B. C. Attorney-General R. W. Bonner. “I myself would be in trouble if I didn’t send my children to school.”

Continued over page

'Hie lost children of British Columbia continued

Here’s how one small child reacted when taken forcibly from her parents and sent to live in New Denver Dormitory

The Sons of Freedom, who number about three thousand, live scattered in a dozen villages within a two-hundred-mile radius of New Denver. They are the nonconformist group of the Doukhobors. In addition to their general aversion to our schools, the Freedomites refuse to recognize the flag, sing the national anthem, or to register births, marriages and deaths. They have resisted efforts to make them obey the law' by dynamiting bridges and railways, burning homes and schools and parading nude. Unlike the Freedomites, the remaining ten thousand Doukhobors are law-abiding citizens living peacefully in the four western provinces.

No one in British Columbia, not even the provincial government which sponsors it, is happy about the New Denver Dormitory. Taking children away from their parents is, in the words

of Attorney-General Bonner, “a last resort.” The Dormitory was established in 1953 because the Sons of Freedom were flagrantly defying the law. Under the B.C. Public School Act, and the school acts of every province, every child between seven and fifteen must attend school.

Provincial authorities have tried to get Freedomites to send their children voluntarily to school. They ran school buses to some of the Freedomite villages. They issued invitations, then warnings. All these efforts failed. “It would be going against our religion to send our children to your schools,” says William Moojelsky, secretary and spokesman for the Sons of Freedom. “They teach nationalism, patriotism, militarism and belittle religion. This type of education can lead to only one thing—death on the battlefield.”

This persistent defiance of the law is met with-

in due process of the law. Cases of persistent truancy are brought before the local magistrate by police, a child-welfare representative or a school-attendance officer. If non-attendance at school is proven, the magistrate can send a child to New Denver for a month unless the parent agrees to enroll him in a local classroom. At the end of the month, another hearing is held. If the parents still refuse to send the children to school, the youngsters are committed to the New Denver Dormitory. This is done under the B.C. Child Protection Act, which enables the province to assume control of children who are “habitually truant” from school. They become wards of the provincial superintendent of welfare. Similar legislation exists in other Canadian provinces, but only B. C. has the unique and apparently almost insoluble problem of the Sons of Freedom.

with 100 other Doukhobor children

Since 1953 the population of the Dormitory has steadily increased as the result of police raids in such Freedomite strongholds as Krestova, Shoreacres, Slocan Valley, Glade and Grand Forks. The parents hide their school-age children in basements, attics, barns and snowbanks. The police find the raids distasteful. Col. F. J. Mead, former deputy commissioner of the RCMP, told me, “The men are fathers themselves—they don't like going into homes and removing children from their families.”

The biggest raid took place in Krestova early on Jan. 18, 1955, when most of the village was asleep. Seventy officers rounded up forty children. At the Evdokinoff home, twelve-year-old Johnny ran out of the back door, half-clad, pursued through the snow by two policemen. He escaped. Later, his father found him under a tree, shivering and crying. He carried him to a neighbor’s home where the police picked him up.

In the KooznetsofT home, the children were in bed when the police arrived. The mother asked them to wait outside. She explained to the children what was happening. Then the parents and children knelt in prayer. “This was our last minute together,” says Liza KooznetsofT. According to Mrs. Helen Konkin, eight police suddenly appeared in her yard. “Hide me! Hide me!” pleaded her seven-year-old son Freddy. She put him in a sack under a bench in the kitchen. When the searchers poked the sack with a stick, the child let out a shriek, and was led away sobbing. During a later raid on the Moojelsky home in Shoreacres, Mrs. Moojelsky disrobed in protest and then fainted. By the time she had recovered, her eleven-year-old daughter had been taken away, in the police car.

The Doukhobors claim that in some raids police have manhandled grandfathers and grandmothers, called the women “whores,” abused the children and dragged them continued on page 100

MACLEANS MAGAZINE, MAY

11, 1957

The lost children of British Columbia continued from page 17

“They’re trying to wipe us out,” claim the

Doukhobors.

“Education was the easiest way”

off without allowing their mothers to say good-by to them. They say the police have torn down walls and ripped up foundations. The police claim they have been kicked, bitten, scratched, slapped, insulted and ridiculed.

Once this painful prologue of separation from his family is over, the committed child starts his new life at New Denver. On visiting day. held on the first and third Sunday of every month, a pathetic ceremony is enacted beside the

high wire fence that surrounds the residence. Promptly at two in the afternoon the hundred Doukhobor children emerge from the buildings. Several feet from the fence, they form themselves into two groups—boys on one side, girls on the

other. Between them stands a small table, bearing the Doukhobor symbols of life— bread, salt and water. The parents stand on the other side of the fence. The children begin singing prayers and songs of welcome, often with tears in their eyes. After twenty minutes, the singing ends and both groups range themselves along the fence. Some are trying to kiss through the wire mesh; others look silently at each other, tears running down their cheeks. Bundles of food and clothes are passed over the fence to children while half a dozen RCMP officers look on.

If a member of the Dormitory staff should happen to appear, an enraged father shakes his fist at him, shouting, “Kidnaper! Beast! Give us back our children!” Or a distraught mother will sound a shrill warning: “Servant of the Devil! God will punish you for this!”

At the end of an hour, parents and children reform themselves in groups. This time, the parents sing. There are more tears as the children return to their dormitories and the parents get into their cars to go back to their villages.

To the Freedomite mothers, the Dormitory is the epitome of everything evil; to most people in the Kootenays. it’s a well-run institution that will prove beneficial. Every aspect of the Dormitory experiment is the subject of bitter controversy. According to Dr. H. L. Campbell, deputy minister of education, a good education for the children is the main purpose of the Dormitory. But Joe Podovinikoff, spokesman for the Freedomites in Hilliers, B.C., claims, “They want to wipe us out—faith, religion and all. Education was chosen as the issue because it was the easiest way to do it.”

Is the Dormitory experiment morally justified? Attorney-General Bonner says, “Most people approve of what we’ve done. It’s a harsh course but what’s the alternative?” Col. Mead, the former RCMP deputy commissioner, comments, “We’re getting pretty cold-blooded. There should be a solution where children don't have to be taken away from parents.” Conflicting versions of how the children are being treated have reached the public. According to superintendent John Clarkson, corporal punishment is rarely used, a full educational and recreational

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program is carried on and the atmosphere of the school is happy and relaxed. So much so, he says, that some children hate to leave when they are fifteen. On the other hand, J. J. Perepelkin, chairman of the fraternal council of the Sons of Freedom, claims the children are “brainwashed, abused, undernourished and neglected.”

There’s not even agreement as to whether parents and children miss each other. Dr. Campbell says, “Parents are not as unhappy as they let on. They’ll put on an act for anybody at any time.” Clarkson says that separation from their children doesn’t bother Freedomite parents because “they’re not like us,” and his matron at the Dormitory, Miss Frances Sinclair, adds, “If the kids never saw their parents at all, they’d be a happy band of children.” But the Doukhóbors themselves reply that such statements are “callous and lacking in human feeling.” William Moojelsky, secretary of the Sons of Freedom, says that the “abduction” of the children has affected their mothers’ health. Mabel Barisoff, a forty-year-old mother of Krestova, told me, “I’m sick all the time with nerves. I don’t sleep at night. How could I, worrying about my children?”

Will children stay Doukhobors?

There are opposing answers to the question of whether the Dormitory will solve the problem of making the Sons of Freedom obey the law. Officials tend to be optimistic. Nelson Allen, school inspector for the Nelson district, says, “When the children leave after eight years, they’ll no longer be Sons of Freedom—they’ll be Canadians.” Doukhobor John Perepelkin sees exactly the opposite result. “New Denver is making good Sons of Freedom out of our children,” he says. “Wait and see what happens when they get out.” The lesson of history appears to substantiate Perepelkin’s prediction. When they were children, the majority of parents who. now have youngsters at the New Denver Dormitory were forcibly separated from their own parents for several years. One of them, thirty-fiveyear-old Nick Voikin, told me, “I was kept in an industrial school for three years. It’ll stay with me till I die. It made my religion ten times as strong.”

1 recently visited the New Denver Dormitory and school, interviewed senior staff members and saw several of the children. I questioned townspeople. Most of them, like Phyllis Forsythe, wife of the local druggist, felt the Dormitory was doing a good job and that the children were well treated. Others told me, “I feel sorry for them. Most people here feel bitter toward them.” I spoke to former employees of the Dormitory. I visited Sons of Freedom villages and spoke to parents whose children had been taken away.

In Krestova, I attended a prayer meeting in an old frame hall illuminated by gas lamps. I listened to an hour of beautiful singing. At one point several men and women disrobed as a gesture of protest against the government. One woman raised her arms and shouted, “They’ve taken away everything—even our hearts.” Another pleaded, “Tell the world what they’ve done to us. Please bring us back our children.”' I also spoke to social workers who, after studying the Doukhobor problem, warned that “removing children from parents is adding fuel to the flame . . . it’s one way to warp personality.” In Victoria, I interviewed the attorney-general and officials of the departments of welfare and education. They told me about their hopes and anxieties for the New Denver Dormitory program and for the larger problem behind it.

The Sons of Freedom are now costing B. C. taxpayers $240,000 a year. Half of this amount is spent on guarding and floodlighting schools and bridges the Freedomites might destroy.

The other half goes for the upkeep of the Dormitory, which is administered by the department of education and paid for by the attorney-general’s department. It consists of a converted sanitarium, annex and a gymnasium. The buildings are on a lot two hundred yards square, surrounded on three sides by a high steel-wire fence. The fourth side faces beautiful

Slocan Lake, with magnificent mountains towering up from the opposite bank. The approach to the Dormitory is guarded by two sets of gates with signs announcing, “Closed Area” and “Trespassers will be Prosecuted.” From Friday to Monday, guards patrol the floodlit gate area twenty-four hours a day. Other days they’re on duty only at night. On visiting days as many as six RCMP officers may be on duty. Guards on night duty are armed, principally as a precaution against incendiarism.

The “san” building that houses older

children, although spotless, is dreary. The sleeping section is cold and barn-like. Each occupant has a white metal bed, two cupboard drawers and a steel locker. The dining hall is an unattractive frame room where the children eat at long tables. The atmosphere is impersonal and institution* aí.

The annex, for younger children, is much more attractive. The central area consists of a large playroom with a grey linoleum file and pastel-green walls. Sleeping quarters off it are decorated with murals. Each boy has a blanket decorat-

ed with a picture of a cowboy. The girls’ dormitory is fancy and feminine.

For the Freedomite children the daily routine is simple. They get up at seven, tidy their quarters, have breakfast and, at 8.30, walk to school in the village, about three quarters of a mile away. At twelve, they go back to the Dormitory for lunch and return to school until three o’clock. (Younger children get out earlier.) Two days a week, the older children are allowed to visit stores in town for an hour after school. Gym classes are held three times a week. Supper is at five, after which the children do homework, read or listen to the radio. On Saturday nights they see a movie, for which twenty cents

is charged; pocket money is supplied by the parents. Depending on the season, the children skate, play ball or swim on Dormitory property. When the Dormitory hockey or baseball teams are playing outside matches, the children are permitted to go and watch them. Otherwise, apart from the two free hours a week in town, they’re confined to the grounds or the land adjacent to it.

At the New Denver public school, the Dormitory children make up half of the student body. The attorney-general’s department has financed attractive additions to the school and pays the salaries of three of the teachers. Freedomite children first go to introductory classes to prepare

for the regular grades. Some of them, even at ten or eleven, have never been in a classroom.

Miss Constance Wright, a pleasant, competent teacher in her sixties, spoke admiringly of her Doukhobor pupils. ‘They’re lovely children,” she said. “Only rarely do they show resistance—like the fourteen-year-old girl who refused to write down the words to God Save the Queen.” I visited a regular grade 3 where half the children are Doukhobors. “They want to learn,” said Mrs. Evie Kynoch, the teacher. “They seem to feel that they’ve missed a good deal and have to catch up.” Some of the children have completed as many as three years in one.

Whether at school or in the residence, the man who bears the main responsibility for the hundred Freedomite children is thirty-eight-year-old John Clarkson. He serves both as principal of the public school and superintendent of the Dormitory. Clarkson is a small, wiry, serious man with brown wavy hair and a strong bony face. In 1949 he was employed as principal of the New Denver public school and when the Freedomite children began arriving in 1953 they automatically became his responsibility. In May 1956, Clarkson also became superintendent of the Dormitory for the provincial department of education.

Clarkson is popular both with his superiors in Victoria and the New Denver townspeople. “He made those kids knuckle under,” a New Denver resident told me. There was a feeling in the district that, under the welfare-department regime, the children were being mollycoddled. Corporal punishment was forbidden; the children were allowed to go home for funerals and weddings; they were also allowed to go visiting in town. It was also felt that the Dormitory staff

failed to take strong enough measures when the children would smash windows, plug toilet bowls and stage nude demonstrations. Clarkson made changes. He took on practically a whole new staff and equipped them with rubber straps. He printed a long list of rules and regulations, prefaced with the remarks, “These must be strictly enforced although they may seem out of place and even severe.”

Clarkson paints a bright picture of life at the Dormitory today. The program is proving a great success, he insists. The children are obedient. Corporal punishment is rarely used. “The children are happy,” he says. “Being away from their parents doesn’t seem to bother them.”

No Russian in the Dormitory

However, when I interviewed several children, as well as a number of former employees, I was given a less cheerful picture. The children told me how much they missed their parents. They also said they are frequently strapped, which Clarkson vigorously denied. Timmy Babakaiff, a ten-year-old boy with freckles, told me that after being in the Dormitory for three years, “I can’t even remember what my home looks like. I’d like to go back. I get strapped a lot. Last month. I was in the gym and didn’t hear the whistle blow so I kept playing with a rubber ball. I got three straps on each hand for that. Another thing—we can’t speak Russian here; if they catch you they punish you. But we speak it while we go to and from school.” (Matron Sinclair later told me that the children arc encouraged to speak English and are not permitted to speak Russian to the supervisors.)

Fourteen-year-old Larry Tomilin told me that one morning before breakfast, in

Are the children often strapped? No, says the superintendent, “parents teach them to lie about it”

January, he was playing in the dormitory with twelve-year-old Billy ChernofF. He said he accidentally hit Billy, who started crying. Attracted by the noise, a member of the staff said to him, “I’ll get a big boy to pick on you!” Later that day, he was sent to the gym to box with a male member of the staff. “He hit me on the face and stomach and I fell down,” Larry told me. “Then he said, ‘Come and show me how you can fight.’ After that he strapped me ten times on each hand and put me to work.”

I interviewed a charming pair of eightyear-old twins, Joey and Nina Jmaeff. Nina, who was convalescing from mumps, said, “I missed my mother when I was sick. I wish I could see her.”

The Jmaeff twins hadn’t seen their mother since her last visit to New Denver on December 9. (I interviewed the twins on February 22.) Shortly after the mother returned home she was suddenly taken ill. Her doctor ordered her to bed. On January 4, she underwent a major operation. Too weak to travel, she asked that her children be brought to her. Her request was forwarded to Clarkson, along with a doctor’s certificate. Clarkson refused permission. “We’re not going to let these children go running home for nothing,” he said. “They’re here for a purpose.”

When I interviewed Clarkson I asked him about several of the reported strapping incidents. He denied that they had taken place. “The children have been taught by their parents to be untruthful,” he told me. 1 asked to see the corporalpunishment book. Under the B.C. Public School Act, the Dormitory is required to keep a record of the date, reason and nature of punishment. Clarkson, who introduced corporal punishment when he took over in May 1956, told me that he only started keeping such a book on January 1, 1957. It contained a single entry: on January 29, a boy had received one stroke on each hand for stealing.

Evidently the operation of the Dormitory is not subject to regular inspection by non-staff people. Attorney-General Bonner told me, “I don't know who inspects the place. I think it’s the district school inspector.” Dr. H. L. Campbell, deputy minister of education, said that “the district school inspector is responsible for the standards of education in the school while the superintendent of child welfare is responsible for seeing that the children are properly looked after.”

At New Denver, the school inspector, Nelson Allen, told me, “I rarely go into the Dormitory. I know that everything's under control. Besides, I’m no welfare expert.” William Crossley, the local welfare representative, observed, “We don’t have much contact with the children once they enter the Dormitory.” Clarkson himself says, “I'm supposed to answer to Nelson Allen for both the school and the Dormitory.” I was told that a

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local committee made up mostly of Dormitory and education - department staff does exist and that it's “supposed to meet” once a month.

The choice of New Denver as a site for the Dormitory may have been an unfortunate one. A well-known western social worker explained to me, “The childern are living under the pressure of hate. The people in the district don’t like

them.” Robert Ross, the former superintendent for almost three years, observed, “There’s hostility up and down the valley. The Dormitory should be in a more impersonal setting.”

Superintendent Clarkson explains that “feeling between the townspeople and the Sons of Freedom runs high because we’ve put up with them for so long.” Officially, Dormitory rules forbid the

children from visiting people in town; unofficially, the children sometimes sneak into the homes of a few friendly villagers for ten or fifteen minutes on their way home from school in the afternoon.

Meanwhile the children’s parents neglect no opportunity to protest against what they term “the kidnaping of our children.” When B.C. Premier W. A. C. Bennett was in Nelson, a group of moth-

eis fell to their knees around him. begging, “Give us back our children.”

Thirty women once descended on the office of Dr. Campbell, the deputy minister of education. Campbell told them that if they agreed to send their children to school they would be promptly returned home. “We can’t change the laws of the country,” he explained. Mrs. Mary Popoff, a Doukhobor spokesman, replied. “We can’t change the laws of God either. We won't accept your schools—they're in conflict with the teachings of Christ.” In April 1956. a group of women at-'i tacked Emmett Gulley on the streets of! Nelson and tore his clothes off. Gulley 1 is a Quaker who advises the government on Doukhobor affairs.

In the fall of 1956, when the steel fence was being erected around the Dormitory, groups of Freedomite parents gathered around it. At one time, as many as sixteen police were called out on duty. When the fence was completed, all parents were sent passes to visit their children on the Dormitory grounds. The Doukhobors tore up the passes and mailed them back. “We refuse to use passes to see our own children,” said William Moojelsky. Since then, parents and children have been separated by a steel fence

on visiting days, usually on week ends.

In the past few years the Sons of Freedom have largely abandoned arson, dynamiting and nude demonstrations as methods of protest. Recently, they have been fighting their case in the courts where they have had at least two successes. In September 1956, Judge William Evans of Nelson ordered the release of eight children who had been held in New Denver for almost three years. Fie found that the government had not followed the proper legal procedure in committing them. (Four of them were later recommitted on grounds of habitual truancy.) Again, in December 1956, the B.C. Supreme Court ordered that ten-year-old Irene Perepelkin be sent home from the Dormitory because the government didn’t present sufficient evidence of non-attendance at school. More court cases are in the offing.

How successful has the New Denver experiment been? Many government officials—and the view is shared by most people in the Kootenay district—believe that in eight years the Freedomite children can be changed into peaceful citizens. But Attorney-General Bonner a few weeks ago told the B. C. legislature, “it will take at least a decade before we know if we’re moving in the right direction.” When I interviewed him he said, “I think the Dormitory has weakened the Sons of Freedom.”

The Freedomites maintain that the opposite is true. “We are stronger than ever,” says Moojelsky. "Orthodox Doukhobors—who don’t often agree with us— now support us.” Last summer in Calgary. a convention of the Union of Orthodox Doukhobors passed a resolution condemning police raids as a systematic attempt to wipe out an entire group. Col. Mead, former deputy commissioner of the RCMP, told me, "Tearing children away from their parents is breeding resentment which eventually may explode.” After studying New Denver on a visiting day, Charles Frantz, a University of Chicago anthropologist, said, “The steel-wire fence has already become a Doukhobor myth. The Dormitory will become the Buchenwald of British Columbia to them.”

I interviewed a number of children who had graduated from the Dormitory after reaching their fifteenth birthday. I first sought out Georgina Starr, whom New Denver officials described as an intelligent, dependable girl who had benefited greatly from her school experience. I found her in a small village where she was conducting a clandestine school for Sons of Freedom children. She had five pupils to whom she teaches the three Rs

and Freedomite songs and prayers. It is not an accredited school since the department of education does not supervise the curriculum. Children attending it would be regarded as “habitual truants.” For this reason, whenever the RCMP appear in the vicinity the children hide. “I hope these children never have to go to the Dormitory,” Georgina told me. “It was like a jail.” She said she enjoyed going to the classes in the town.

llene Kinakin, a dark, attractive girl, said, “I learned to read and write but it hasn’t made me friendlier to anybody.” Joey Sherstobitoof, another graduate, told me, “I don’t think much of the government and police after the way they took me away. I think my parents did right in keeping me out of school. I feel the same way about things as I always did.”

Is a less drastic solution possible? In 1950, at the request of the B. C. government, a University of British Columbia group started a two-year study of the Sons of Freedom problem. At the same time a committee under Dean G. C. Andrew of UBC was set up to act as a liaison between the Freedomites and the government. It included Col. Mead, Emmett Gulley, the Quaker, and Hugh Herbison, a minister and teacher. (Most of these men resigned when the government set up the New Denver Dormitory.) Neither group had a solution to the Sons of Freedom problem.

Should teachers get bonuses?

Most agree a commission on Doukhobor affairs should be established. Also, the land question must be settled. (In 1938 the B.C. government took over several hundred acres of iand after Doukhobor co-operative communities went bankrupt. This has been a serious source of aggravation ever since.) And perhaps some special treatment needs to be devised for the Freedomites. “The present climate of hostility must be neutralized,” says Col. Mead. “The law must be upheld. but there’s much that can be achieved within the law.”

Freedomite parents could be encouraged to serve on local school boards. Superior teachers could be hired, paying them bonuses, if necessary. Marching, saluting, flag ceremonies, singing patriotic songs and other activities condemned by the Freedomites on religious grounds could be dispensed with.

At one time there was some discussion about the Sons of Freedom setting up their own schools. No plan acceptable to both sides could be agreed on. Last fall, the Freedomites took the initiative and started a small school of their own in Glade. Educational authorities ordered it closed because the teacher was unqualified and the standard of instruction was not high enough.

At present, the police raids go on and the population of the New Denver Dormitory continues to grow. Both the government and the Sons of Freedom remain adamant. Dr. H. L. Campbell, deputy minister of education, asks, “Why should we treat the Sons of Freedom differently than anyone else? The law has to be obeyed.” William Moojelsky, speaking for his people, says, “We will never send our children to government schools. We are more determined than ever to bring them up as Doukhobors. If the kidnaping raids continue, something unpleasant may happen. You can't keep on spitting on a mother’s heart.”

Caught in the middle are the confused, often unhappy children of the Dormitory, poking their noses through the high wire fence, asking their parents, “How long must we stay?” ★