Lack of compensation for Doukhobor religious group disappointing: B.C. ombudsperson

VICTORIA — Children taken from their homes 70 years ago due largely to the religious beliefs of their parents will soon receive a formal apology from British Columbia's government, but their quest for compensation remains uncertain, says the province's ombudsperson.

Jay Chalke said he's "deeply disappointed" the province won't commit to compensating members of the Sons of Freedom Doukhobors, who were forcibly removed from their parents in the 1950s and placed in a former tuberculosis sanatorium at New Denver, B.C., for up to six years.

The Sons of Freedom were a small group within the Doukhobor community, an exiled Russian Christian group that was once known for naked protests and periodically burning down their own homes as a rejection of materialism.

There may be up to 100 survivors from the Sons of Freedom group, who are now aged in their 70s or 80s, Chalke said at a news conference.

His office released a report on the Doukhobors on Tuesday, entitled "Time to Right the Wrong."

Chalke said the report comes after recent complaints from Doukhobor survivors about government inaction.

The report is also a followup to a 1999 review by the Office of the Ombudsperson that called for a formal apology to the interned Doukhobors and compensation, Chalke said.

The government's commitment to formally apologize this fall was a "momentous" step forward, but compensation must also be addressed.

"Recently, I spoke with the descendant of one of the children and through her tears she told me that her family member, who had been at New Denver, had died the month before without hearing the apology he had been waiting for and the compensation he and my office believe he was owed," Chalke said.

The B.C. Ministry of Attorney General says in the ombudsperson's report it is committed to delivering an apology this fall and is also preparing a "recognition package."

Chalke said the ministry's response does not completely confirm compensation is forthcoming.

The Ministry of Attorney General was not immediately available to comment on the report.

"So, it will be critically important to ensure that this package will include compensation for individuals, family members and the community," Chalke said. "For justice to be fully realized in this case, I expect no less and will be reporting publicly on the development and implementation of government's articulation of what recognition will ultimately entail."

The report said between 1953 and 1959 about 200 children were removed at government direction from parents who were members of the Sons of Freedom Doukhobors, a group within the community in the West Kootenays known for acts against government regulations.

About half of the removed children were seized after their parents staged a nude protest near a school in Perry Sidings, B.C., on Sept. 9, 1953.

Many of the children reported being mistreated physically and psychologically at the New Denver facility, which they described as a prison-like institution bordered by a fence they were forced to build.

"Our parents could not have too much contact with us," a survivor told the ombudsperson in 1999 for the first report calling for an apology and compensation. "The fence was in the way. To kiss us we would kiss through the loops in the fence. To touch us, we would stick our fingers through the fence."

Chalke said the government apology will serve as a step toward achieving closure for people and a community who have been waiting decades for resolution.

"When government finally apologizes this fall, it will come too late for those who have died, said Chalke's report. "However, I trust that those still alive can take solace in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s reminder that 'the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.'"

B.C.'s ombudsperson is an independent officer of the legislature who investigates complaints of unfair or unreasonable treatment by provincial and local public authorities and provides general oversight of the administrative fairness of government processes under the Ombudsperson Act.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 18, 2023.

Dirk Meissner, The Canadian Press