The Doukhobors of B.C.: Final Thoughts and A Few Notes

[Part One][Part Two][Part Three][Part Four]

The long (far longer than I originally planned) set of posts on this topic was intended to give some background to the current case being considered by the Human Rights Tribunal, brought before them by the New Denver Survivors, representing those who were children taken into care during the Freedomite troubles. The Survivors group has demanded an apology, compensation, and an explanation.

Here is the core of the story presented in the previous four posts: Doukhobor immigrants were invited to Canada, where the holdings that they built up over six or seven years were stolen from them. Some then moved to British Columbia where they ran into nativist locals who persuaded the provincial government to make their lives uncomfortable. The government used the pretense of requiring various official registrations to harass these people. Their leader, Peter the Lordly Verigin, pushed back by turning the schools into a battleground. When the government was uncooperative, children were taken from school. Eventually, the school buildings became arson targets. This phase was interrupted by World War I, when the province and the Doukhobors found cooperation mutually satisfying.

After the War, there was more friction, but it seemed as though the two parties might accommodate one another over time. The schools, however, were the continuing battlefield between the two factions. Verigin was indifferent to education but utilized school attendance as a weapon whenever he was displeased with the provincial government. This period ended with Verigin’s unexplained death in an explosion.

The new leader, Peter Chistiakoff, did not arrive in B.C. until three years later. In the meantime, the leaderless Doukhobors obligated themselves to certain large creditors. Chistiakoff spent years trying to pay off the debt incurred before his arrival. This was complicated by the onset of the Great Depression. Further, Chistiakoff was an erratic leader, a drunkard with a nasty temper who spent three of his ten years in B.C. in jail — a year and a half in a Saskatchewan prison, the rest made up of thirty and ninety day sentences mostly served in Nelson — and was incapacitated with illness in his final year. The property of the Community Doukhobors was seized for non-payment of debts and came into the hands of the provincial government.

The Freedomites, an extreme group of mystic believers, rose to prominence. Both Peter Lordly and Chistiakoff used this faction when they needed it and publicly rejected it when they didn’t. The Freedomites began using dynamite under Chistiakoff’s leadership. His absence during periods of incarceration left the group free to its own devices.

When Chistiakoff died, his successor was in a prison camp in the Soviet Union. The Freedomites therefore rejected the young John J. Verigin who assumed leadership of the moderate Doukhobor factions in B.C. The Freedomites fell under the control of various charlatans and con men, particularly Stefan Sorokin who took up residence in Uruguay. Freedomite actions were met with foolish countermeasures by both federal and provincial authorities, but the initiative fell to the arsonists and bombers who refused attempts at settling the disputes. By now protesting and bombing had become a way of life for many Freedomites, though there was nothing to be gained from such tactics except personal martyrdom.

Mass arrests in the early 1950s were followed by forcible seizing of children who were not in school — these were incarcerated at New Denver. Finally, in 1959, parents gave their promise that the children would attend school and the New Denver children came home. Bombings increased though, and became much worse. Police arrested and incarcerated all of the Freedomite leadership. Demonstrations against their imprisonment, including the Great March, drained energy away from other activities and the Freedomites were essentially broken. Since 1962, B.C. Doukhobors have lived peaceable lives of much the same quality as their non-Doukhobor neighbors.

An apology for some government actions — such as the theft of the Doukhobor settled lands in Saskatchewan — seems so belated that it lacks usefulness. Neither those who committed the deed nor those who suffered are still around. The provincial government has formally tendered its regrets over the New Denver incarceration of children, but not an apology. I suppose the difference is this: regret says we wished it had been done another way, but an apology (such as that given Japanese-Canadians interned during World War II) says we were totally wrong, you were right. But, in fact, it was the Freedomites themselves who made their children pawns in this power game. There are apologies due those taken from their families, but they are due from a number of people, beginning with Peter Lordly, who started this game. Compensation may be awarded by the Tribunal. It isn’t clear to me how much, if anything, should be paid and who it should go to, but I’ll go along with whatever the Tribunal says.

Some Notes:

Spelling: I have used various spelling of Doukhobor names that are very variable in practice. “Popoff”, “Popov”, “Poppoff” are all locally used variants of the same family name (though the first seems to have become preferred). Usually I have opted for “-off” rather than “-ov” endings except where it seemed the great weight of common usage was against me. I used the name Anastasia Golubova, because that is the most frequent occurence of that name on the Internet, but Anastasia’s last name is probably more correctly anglicized as Holuboff. I wrote “John Lebedeff” rather than “Lebedov” because that was, if I recall correctly (and I may not,) the spelling he gave to a community television crew who videotaped an interview with him in Wynndel in 1982.

Bread and Salt: Apparently there are states in the U.S. where witnesses in a trial must swear an oath on the Bible. In Canada, witnesses may “solemnly affirm”. “Eat bread and salt and speak the truth” is a Doukhobor saying that encapsulates certain beliefs.

Bread, a wooden salt keeper, and water on a Doukhobor table

At a 1974 trial that I witnessed, a Doukhobor man accused a woman, a relative by marriage and his next-door neighbor, of attacking him with an iron bar. When the man came to give testimony, he swore on the Bible. The Defense immediately objected on the grounds that the man did not believe in the Bible. Magistrate William Evans waved a hand. “He has taken the oath,” he said. When the man’s wife appeared to testify, she turned her head away from the Bible and Evans quietly asked for bread and salt. A pitcher of water was already present. A wire basket, like those used to hold papers on a desktop, was produced with slices of store-bought white bread and a shaker of salt like that you might find on a diner countertop. This was nothing like the great loaves of Doukhobor bread and the carved wooden salt receptacles that stood on every table, but the woman affirmed on them anyway. In the event, Evans’ decision, when he dismissed the charges, showed that he did not accept the testimony of either witness, though he did not ever mention perjury. I had some dealings with the alleged victim in the case and regarded him as untruthful — certainly he gave no evidence of having been beaten with an iron bar, though I did consider that he might have been slapped or punched. At any rate, I thought Magistrate Evans’ decision was just.

“White People” vs. “English”: As late as the mid-seventies, there was at least one loud-mouthed individual in the Slocan Valley who claimed to belong to the “White People’s Party” which he defined as, “non-Hippie, non-Indian, and non-Doukhobor”. He later was convicted of assault against someone he probably considered a hippy and moved from the area. The usage of the term “non-White” by 19th and early 20th Century English immigrants to describe Russians does not surprise. Nor should it be surprising that non-Doukhobors are referred to as “English” by these Russians.


5 comments on “The Doukhobors of B.C.: Final Thoughts and A Few Notes

  1. nursemyra says:

    I did not know about the bread and salt. Very interesting.

    • mikulpepper says:

      I don’t know if I made it clear: bread, salt, amd water represent the things necessary for life. Some trace the Doukhobor bread and salt back to Russian hospitality etiquette — these are things you would not refuse a stranger who came into your home.

  2. From: Blog Review by Koozma J. Tarasoff : The Doukhobors of B.C. — a 5-part history with errors
    In this last shorter section the author finally reveals his purpose — background on ‘the Freedomite troubles’ — to support some 170 graduates of the New Denver School survivors who were forcibly taken by police for failure to go to public school. This is a good cause to support but it deserves accurate reporting, which the reader will not find in this 5-part series.

    His title should have been ‘Background on the Freedomite Troubles’ rather than ‘The Doukhobors of B.C.’ Again I compliment his writing ability, but Culpepper’s series is terribly awkward with the subject paragraph at the end. The multitude of errors are inexcusable since I offered to help correct them.

    Canada had 10 Japanese internment camps during WWII, 8 were in BC and one at New Denver, where the hospital and elder care home is located today. From 1953 to 1959 these vacated barracks were used to house ‘truant’ children from zealot parents who feared public education for a variety of reasons.

    Culpepper failed to explain the that the government was correctly informed by their own consultants who interviewed the zealot parents and concluded that schools should be located in their village of Krestova with bi-lingual teachers. The parents objected to government-run schools outside their village which teach assimilation and conscription for war, but agreed to local schools. Ignoring their own research, a few despotic officials wanted to harshly punish the uncooperative families for political reasons. Their kids were treated worse than the reportedly ‘savage’ First Nations children. The government could have more economically complied with own field staff and furnished a school in the village, but the British Columbia Government of the day wanted to heroically fix the Sons of Freedom with abusive force, and failed. The surviving students have risen from their ashes to tell their story.

    Their story began when the Canadian government broke it’s promise to the Russian Doukhobor immigrants as it did to First Nations and others. That’s the historic context. Much of this history is scattered among many publications spanning the century, many of which are listed at the bottom of my article: The “Sons of Freedom” — a Flashback to 1956 (21 Aug 2009).

    Unfortunately the relationship between zealots and the Doukhobors has never been sharply differentiated. The task is difficult because too many people have been stuck with a sectarian definition (at least since the beginning of the 1900s, Doukhobors have moved sharply from sectarian to social movement status), and too many people just want to see photos of naked women. Culpepper appears to believe that he has presented a useful summary, he shows a few photos of naked women, but he further confuses the reader with a sloppy collage of mislabeled facts.

    The approximate 170 students, now as adults, have been lobbying the government and public as the ‘New Denver Survivors.’ Though many were poorly educated due to their institutional education behind a high wire fence, a few managed to finish college and have been guiding their peers to advocate for themselves. Several of these have become highly successful. Their goals are a public apology and an explanation for their child abuse, along with financial compensation and counseling for psychological trauma.

    I support the NDS, but I am upset when I see history continuously distorted and incorrectly reported for personal gain by writers with personal agendas.

    • mikulpepper says:

      The purpose of this series of posts was stated at the beginning and re-stated here. It is not to “support” the New Denver Survivors but to find the explanation of the government’s actions that they have asked for. I believe that the actions of both federal and provicial governments have been examined and criticized in these posts. The government of B.C. was reacting to the violent activities of Freedomites. Schools became a battleground in this matter because they had been made so by Doukhobor leadership in the 1920s who were then unable to control the Freedomite faction.
      The basic difference between Mr. Tarasoff and myself is that he wishes to separate Doukhobors and Freedomites. Not all Doukhobors were Freedomites, but all Freedomites were Doukhobors. Mr. Tarasoff disagrees and wants to cast the Freedomites out of the group. He does not have that authority.

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