Today, October 16th, is Blog Action Day, and this year the conversation is about human rights. Such a huge subject, that. In the Western world we are all easily able to find ourselves wearing clothing that might be made in sweatshops, or eating food picked or prepared by workers who suffer deplorable working conditions. Our mining companies go into countries and cause havoc among the people who live there so we can have our phones and our computers and our jewellery. Until very recently Canada exported asbestos to countries like India while spending huge amounts of money to have it safely removed from buildings here. We drive our cars and at the same time protest the viability of running pipelines across the land. Always, always, there are two sides to every story.
But for the purpose of this Blog Action Day I'm going to concentrate on one.
I was born in the middle of the last century, just after the end of World War II. I grew up thinking Canada was a good country, unlike, say, Germany, which had produced Hitler. I grew up hearing that it was okay that Japanese Canadians were interned in various interior towns during the war because, after all, they were Japanese and we were at war with Japan. No matter that many of them had been born in Canada and that made them Canadian. You couldn’t tell them from Japanese nationals, so their properties and livelihoods were seized and they were shipped off to various interior spots, including places in my part of the planet, picturesque little towns like Sandon and Lemon Creek and New Denver, beautiful places nestled in mountains beside lakes and rivers, but oh, how ugly they must have seemed to the people who were interned there.
In the 1950s New Denver was again home to another group of people the government deemed to be in need of incarceration. And this time it was children.
The BC government of the day—Social Credit—decreed that all children would be sent to school. Fearing government intervention in their lives, the Sons of Freedom, an extremist sect of the peace-loving Doukhobors who came to Canada at the turn of the last century, refused to register births, deaths and marriages and refused to send their kids to public schools.
The government decided to conduct a “social experiment” and in a series of raids beginning in 1953 the RCMP swooped down on homesteads in places like Krestova and took the children away to the former TB sanitarium in New Denver that was to be their home for the next six years.
In one case, four police cars with fifteen cops arrived at one house to hunt down one six-year-old boy. A total of 174 kids were taken from their parents.
The writer Simma Holt, whose inflammatory book on the subject, Terror in the Name of God, is still considered by some to be an accurate account of the proceedings, says in an interview reproduced on a Global TV documentary that aired in December 2012 that the children’s time in New Denver gave them their “first taste of Canadian life”—if that isn’t enough to make you cringe! She also said that New Denver was a wonderful place with the dormitory on the lake where kids could swim and inside which they hopped on the beds, and the meals were good. She goes on to muse: “If I were a good reporter I’d have asked them how they feel about it but I never did. Funny, isn’t it?” Funny indeed, if you mean funny “strange”. It’s certainly not funny “ha ha”.
After a couple of years the director of the school, John Clarkson, started a program where the boys at the school were paid a dollar a hole to dig in an eight-foot high chain link fence around the facility that was erected to keep the kids separated from their parents when they came to visit. After the fence went in the parents got to visit for an hour—one hour—every two weeks.
As is the case with many residential schools of that era, some of the children were sexually abused. As is the case with many residential schools of that era, most of the children bear psychological scars that are with them to this day, if they’ve survived that long.
In August 1959 the school was closed after several of the Sons of Freedom mothers signed a court-approved document saying they would send their children to public school.
And then the bombings began in earnest. In 1960–61 there were over three hundred bombings and arsons in the Kootenays, and many of the perpetrators were young men who had been at the “school” in New Denver. Talk about your terrorism. One teenager, Harry Kootnikoff, was carrying a homemade bomb inside his jacket when it accidentally went off. Local papers published a picture of the 16-year-old’s remains on a slab in the morgue, in hopes, it was said, of deterring future incidents. I was thirteen when it happened, and I remember that picture as if I saw it yesterday. You can read a reprint of the Trail Daily Times article about the bombing here. TV newscasts may have gotten a lot more graphic in recent times, but I defy you to find a picture like that one in local newspapers today.
Take half an hour out of your day and watch the video on Global TV called Lost Childhood that first aired in December 2012. Some of the footage has appeared in other documentaries. I know this, because in 2007 I wrote a poem called Fences that examines some of the issues raised in the Global documentary I just watched.
I wrote the poem in memory of my friend Vi Plotnikoff, who died of brain cancer in 2006. A Doukhobor writer, she published a collection of short stories, Head Cook at Weddings and Funerals that contained a story called Dead Village with No Children (as near as I can recall; just went looking for her book and it’s missing! I swear I’m never going to lend another book!) Here's the poem:
(for Vi Plotnikoff)
We follow the hearse up the hill to the English Cemetery.
Snow falls softly, feathers the ground.
Across the river in Ootischenia
the other cemetery, Blagodatnoe,
overlooks the Columbia River.
Slate or marble markers lie amid the dry grasses
abandoned by all but the dead now,
surrounded by a wire fence.
Vi’s in a plain pine box, in a pale blue dress,
her hands folded, her eyes shut.
Fastened securely at her neck
as if the sharp November wind might tug it off,
a kerchief—a platok, she’d say—
covers her head with pink flowers.
Off to the north in New Denver,
another wire fence,
a chain link fence
keeps children in and parents out.
There’s always singing at Doukhobor funerals.
Today, at the graveside,
a cappella voices rise to the sky, clouds part,
the sun shines welcome to my friend.
In the fifties, the RCMP came before dawn
and rousted from their beds
the children of Sons of Freedom,
children whose parents didn’t hide them
in cupboards or root cellars,
under floor boards or out in the woods,
wherever they could get to in time.
On her casket, pink roses from her family who loved her.
A deer, a young buck, emerges from the woods,
watches while she is lowered into the ground.
The government said parents were wrong
to keep the kids out of school,
so it punished the kids as well as the parents.
Vi told stories of Doukhobor life, of aunts and young soldiers,
of girls and their weddings,
and stories as distant from her life as mine,
one of dead villages, dead with no children,
gone with their youth, gone with their laughter
as if the Pied Piper had lured them away.
Two hours at a time,
twenty-four times a year,
parents could visit their children.
In winter they touched fingers
through the chain-link fence,
afraid to kiss, for the fence was cold
and their lips might stick.
After she’s in the ground
and the deer has returned to the forest
we drive back to Brilliant,
to long tables laden with tea and sturdy bread,
with bowls for the funeral borscht,
lapsha, served by the ladies.
In the fifties, children like me,
same age as the kids in New Denver,
didn’t know how to say platok, or Blagodatnoe,
didn’t know the Doukhobor kids could speak Russian.
They kept that secret.
Last time I saw her,
propped against pillows in her hospital bed,
Spasiba I said.
Thank you for the stories.
Spasiba for helping us English begin to understand.
Thank you for telling.
So far the government has not given an official apology to the surviving adults who were among the children kept inside that chain link fence in the ‘50s. Sometimes, if there is to be any sort of healing from such psychic wounds, those two or three words are where it has to start.
I am sorry. And I hope that one day soon the BC government will see fit to say it's sorry, too.