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B.C. attorney general apologizes to Doukhobors, offers $10M 'compensation package'

Darpan News Desk The Canadian Press, 02 Feb, 2024 11:06 AM
  • B.C. attorney general apologizes to Doukhobors, offers $10M 'compensation package'

Elizabeth Hlookoff says she got teary as she watched British Columbia's attorney general apologize for what provincial authorities did to her family seven decades ago.

Until that moment, she thought she had healed from the experience of being taken from her parents, who were members of the Sons of Freedom Doukhobor religious group, and sent to live in a former tuberculosis sanatorium.

She was among hundreds of children forcibly removed from their homes in the 1950s, in part because their parents opposed government rules and refused to send them to public schools.

"I didn't expect (to tear up) because you think you're through all that, you think you're over it and have dealt with it, but obviously there's trauma that lies deep beneath," she said from her home in Maple Ridge, B.C. 

Hlookoff was only seven when she arrived at the former sanitorium in New Denver, B.C., in 1954. She would be there until 1959.

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

In her formal apology Thursday, Attorney General Niki Sharma acknowledged the children were "mistreated both physically and psychologically." 

"This is not a proud history. The Province of British Columbia recognizes the stigma and trauma experienced by the Sons of Freedom and the broader Doukhobor community," she said in a transcript of remarks to be delivered at an event attended by survivors in Castlegar, B.C., that was also streamed online.

"And so today, on behalf of the Province of British Columbia, we acknowledge and apologize for the past injustices that were committed by the Province of British Columbia."

The apology came with a promise of $10 million for community programs and education aimed at providing "lasting recognition of historical wrongs" committed against the Sons of Freedom Doukhobor and their families.

Sharma said authorities had also levied fines against the group and seized communal property over infractions that included school absenteeism. 

She said between 1931 and 1959, hundreds of Sons of Freedom members were convicted and handed sentences of up to three years.

After watching the apology, Hlookoff said she was glad Sharma acknowledged that what the government did was wrong.

"Because there's a lot of people that think, oh, well, you know, they deserved it, or whatever. Well, children don't deserve that," she said.

Sharma said in an interview that the apology should have happened sooner but she was glad the government was able to make it happen for the elderly survivors.

"I think it was emotional for everybody to be there … because you could see that the pain that they were carrying and was on their face was just as real and tough as when they were ripped away from their families," she said.

"So I guess all of our hope is that today will help bring them some peace with an acknowledgment from the government that what happened was wrong." 

Robert Chursinoff’s grandfather was a member of the Sons of Freedom who spent time in jail after protesting, but his family separated from that particular Doukhobor sect before he was born.

Some of his family members attended Thursday’s event and he said it felt good to know that Sharma apologized.

Chursinoff, who lives in Castlegar, said he grew up hearing stories of kids who had been taken from their families.

“It casts a cloud over the community, whether my parents or people that I knew directly were sent into that school or not, we all look at it as (if) we're all one family,” he said.

Hlookoff said she wasn’t aware of the level of trauma caused by what happened until she wrote a book about her experiences.

"(There's been) alcoholism, marriage breakups, (people) unable to parent basically because while we were there, we never even had a hug," she said.

"And we certainly couldn't hug our parents because we saw them through a chain-link fence."

Sharma said the $10-million "compensation package" includes money to preserve and promote the community's cultural heritage and historic sites, support educational and cultural programs, conduct research and expand access to mental health services.

She said $3.75 million of the package is for a specific health and wellness fund that individual survivors will be able to apply to. 

"This apology and these initiatives are predicated on the hope that those impacted by these injustices are able to access the support they need to heal, and to ensure that such violations of human rights are prevented from happening ever again in this province," Sharma told the group, according to the transcript.

In a separate statement, Premier David Eby said Thursday the province forcibly removed children, leaving parents to visit them through fences.

"Courts would not let this happen today, and it should not have happened then," Eby said.

"There is no more sacred a relationship than parent and child, and that relationship was broken for a whole community, resulting in harms that have echoed for generations. Today, we acknowledge the pain experienced by Sons of Freedom Doukhobor children and families."

Sharma is scheduled to make the apology again at an event in Grand Forks, B.C., on Friday and Eby will also deliver the apology in the legislature on Feb. 27.

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