They were bound together by language, prayer, and music. They were Russian Doukhobors, or the “Sons of Freedom”. From the time they arrived in Canada, the Sons of Freedom clashed with the government.
“Mom burned her house when I was 2. She undressed and that was what she was arrested for, for nudity,” says Elsie Eriksen, a daughter of a family of the “Sons of Freedom” sect.
In the 1950s, nudity and arson were the hallmarks of the Sons of Freedom. But it was their refusal to send their children to public school that bought the full force of the police and government officials into their communal villages.
“You know you may think the government shouldn’t be interfering in family life but the kids have to grow up and have the same opportunity as my children or your children,” says 91-year old Simma Holt, a journalist for the Vancouver Sun at the time. “There is a law that covers every child. it’s called the ‘protection of children’ and that was what they acted under.”
In a raid in 1953, armed RCMP officers arrested 148 adults for nudity. Many of those arrested spent three years in jail. At the same time police took children of the Doukhbors to the New Denver dormitory – the same one used to intern Japanese-Canadians during the Second World War. For the next six years, the prison-like environment would be home to a total of 174 children.
“It was a rescue operation and, no, you will not be able to convert the old timers and the mothers and so on,” says Fred Bodnaruk, the RCMP officer who eventually cracked what was being called the “Doukhobor Mafia”. “They’re steeped in this culture but let us rescue the young and let us give them a different light.”
The children became wards of the province. Until they turned 15, they’d sleep, eat and go to school in the dormitory.
“We’re made to feel bad that our parents must have done something bad. That our language was bad. That our religion was bad. You were made to feel ashamed,” says Eriksen, now in her mid-sixties.
But things were about to get worse for the Sons of Freedom. In July, 1956 the superintendent, John Clarkson built a steel fence around the New Denver dormitory. From then on, family visits would only take place once every two weeks, with no physical contact except through a chain link fence.
“We couldn’t hug each other. We could only kiss or pat ourselves towards the fence,” says Shirley Relcoff, a former resident of New Denver.
The children were beaten and some revealed to 16×9, for the first time, that they suffered sexual abuse at the hands of New Denver staff.
In 1959, the stand- off between the Sons of Freedom and the BC government came to an end. But to this day, the children interned at New Denver have yet to receive an apology.
“A sorry has to be said,” says Elsie Eriksen. “And maybe that way we’ll start to move forward.”
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