Doukhobor children were taken from their homes to guarded schools
It was a winter morning in 1954 when the police came for Walter Swetlishoff and his big brother, Sidney. He’d known, with the dread certainty of a seven-yearold’s fears, that this day would come. What he couldn’t fathom was... why? Even now, after years spent sorting the sharp shards of his memory, he has no answer. At 54, he appreciates—on an intellectual level— that he was a victim, not a criminal, during those crazy times. There were 150 children like him, Doukhobors from the mountainous Kootenay region of British Columbia, who were hunted down and locked away. They were guilty only of obeying their parents, he says. Knowing this does not ease his pain.
The children were caught between state and church in a bizarre and still-unresolved chapter of the province’s history, crushed between the uncompromising stance of W A. C. Bennett’s Social Credit government, on one hand, and the religious extremism of their parents on the other. They were members of the Sons of Freedom, a radical antigovernment branch of the Doukhobors, a Russian religious sect that fled to Canada in 1899 to escape persecution.
Settling first in the Prairies, about 5,000 Freedomites moved to British Columbia in 1908. Virtually from their arrival, they earned the enmity of neighbours by their virulent refusal to accept government authority, or to assimilate into Canadian society. They dynamited bridges and railway tracks, burned homes and schools and staged nude protests to show their disdain for material goods and secular ways.
In 1953, they burned an astonishing 400 homes in the Kootenay region, some of their own, others belonging to increasingly fearful members of the larger community. Bennett got tough. He attacked the Freedomites’ contempt for public education with a draconian enforcement of compulsory school attendance laws. That fall, fearing Freedomites might disrupt local schools and hide their children from
truant officers, authorities apprehended more than 100 boys and girls—and bused them to a fenced and guarded residential school in a former tuberculosis sanatorium at New Denver, deep in B.C. s scenic Selkirk Mountains.
When the RCMP arrived, Walter and Sidney, who was 10, dove for the low crawl space under the family’s home outside the Doukhobor enclave of Krestova. The police dragged Sidney out by his pant legs. Walter, scared and stubborn, burrowed beyond reach beneath the cedar beams, curling into the cozy nest where the family dog slept. They poked at him with poles, fired off a tear-gas canister and berated his frantic parents. Walter would not be moved. It was warm. He felt safe—enveloped in a sense of security that has eluded him since. “I remember that,” he says,
“and the smell of the dog.” Walter was left behind. The police delivered Sidney to New Denver, to part of the same compound used more than a decade earlier for some of the thousands of JapaneseCanadians who were interned during the Second World War, in another case of guilt by association.
The children slept in bleak barracks-like dormitories. Corporal punishment was regularly meted out. Allegations of sexual and physical abuse persist today. There were no holidays, and some children stayed as long as six years, until their release at age 15. Family visits, conducted through the mesh of the school’s wire fence, were limited to one hour, every second Sunday.
In a May, 1957, edition of Macleans, writer Sidney Katz did a heartbreaking profile of New Denver, and “the lost children of British Columbia.” He described a Sunday visit: “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, ‘Kidnapper! Beast! Give us back our children!’ ”
By avoiding capture, Walter Swetlishoff doomed himself to three years as a fugitive, running from house to house, hiding in sheds or forest cabins. When he was finally caught, in a police roadblock set up to capture truants, his nerves were shredded and he suffered from chronic migraines. He was 10 years old.
He excelled as a student, having already schooled himself as a fugitive with old books and stacks of Life magazines. He set, in those terrible days, the course of his career; the one-time truant is today a highschool teacher. Yet he blames the New Denver school for many things. For destroying I his brother, who died at 39 « after years of chronic alcohol I abuse. For the subsequent t guilt that caused his once“ abstentious father also to die ê of drink. For his own tortured emotions. His memories are an “open wound” of hard discipline, callous treatment and the electric thrill of touching a lost parent through the mesh of the school fence. A good part of him remains locked behind chain link. “I want my life back,” he says.
Swetlishoff is among 54 former students suing the province, seeking damages and an apology for what they claim was unlawful confinement, maltreatment, humiliation and degradation. The trial is set for January, 2003, but a hearing will begin on Feb. 25 in a provincial government attempt to have the case dismissed because of the delay in filing the claims.
Not all former students have joined the lawsuit. “To me, that is not a healing process,” says Kathleen Makortoff, 53, who was eight when police carted her away to New Denver. She was released in 1959, when the province closed the school. Everyone must find their own path, she says. “Even though we all shared the experience together, each had their own reactions, their own emotional baggage that went with it.”
She speaks after finishing her shift as a licensed practical nurse at the hospital and extended-care facility in New Denver. The complex where she works includes the very dormitory where she was confined for three years. Don’t read deep
meaning into this, Makortoff warns. She tookthejobinl989 because she was a single mom. She needed a steady paycheque and the dental plan.
Yet there are memories behind every door, in the attic, in a surviving portion of the fence that once kept Makortoff from her parents. Memories, good and bad, surface unbidden at the oddest moments. She copes with them as they arrive, convinced
they provide a process of “continuous healing.” Others, she knows, have spent a lifetime racing to avoid the past. “When you stop running,” she says, “everything behind you catches up and you have to deal with it.”
The past lives as a flickering flame. In October, Mary Braun—at 81, the last of the Freedomites—disrobed in a Nelson, B.C., courtroom and calmly accepted a six-year prison sentence for an act of arson, one of many she’s committed over the decades. This time, in a pathetic echo of another age, she’d burned a community college building.
The lost children struggle to heal. Who was at fault? Their parents, who were as rabid and unyielding as Mary Braun? Or a Cold War-era government, which targeted these troublesome Russian children to crush the terrorism of their parents? A 1999 report by then B.C. ombudsman Dulde McCallum concluded the government failed these children. “They are, in my opinion, entitled to an explanation, an apology and compensation for their confinement in a form that permits them the opportunity to heal.” Far from agreeing, the government has vigorously defended itself against the students’ lawsuit. Its statement of defence calls the apprehensions “very distressing” to the children, but necessary to combat “a wave of terrorism spanning 30 years.”
In the governments view, New Denver was a success: “The children became literate in the English language and acquired communication and other skills to enable them to obtain employment and advance themselves.” The province further credits educational programs with “changing the children’s hostile attitude towards government and engendered in them a respect for the laws of this country.”
But Makortoff says the lawsuit shows the students’ experience left many of them with no respect for the government. As for her, a court can’t resolve the mistakes of the past. “What,” she asks, “will give me back my childhood?” Instead, she wants a guarantee that children won’t again suffer because of religion, ethnicity or the sins of others. To see Muslims become targets of retaliation after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks brought back ugly memories. “It doesn’t take very much to inspire hate or fear,” Makortoff muses. “Fear is the thing that causes the hate to happen.” G3
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