Seventy years after the British Columbia government forcibly removed dozens of children from their families and placed them in a province-run camp, some survivors and their descendants say a $10-million compensation package aimed at reconciliation falls short of their expectations.

Rather, some surviving members of the Sons of Freedom Doukhobors say the B.C. government’s financial compensation package has reopened old wounds.

Those interviewed by CBC say they had hoped the government would provide direct compensation to survivors and families in a one-time lump sum payment.

“It’s a slap in the face,” said Betty Kabatoff, 78, who travelled from the province’s Kootenay region to Victoria on Tuesday to hear the government formally recognize the historical wrongs committed against surviving members and their families.

WATCH | B.C. government makes official apology: 

B.C. government apologizes to Doukhobor community

On Feb. 27, the province officially apologized for the forcible removal of children from Doukhobor families in the 1950s.

Lorraine Walton, the daughter of two survivors of the Doukhobor camp, said many families are glad the province will finally apologize, but hoped for better compensation.

When B.C. Attorney General Niki Sharma first announced a compensation package in early February, Walton, who also works with an advocacy group of survivors, said many families were too overwhelmed to properly process it.

“It’s taken us three weeks to put those thoughts together … to say that’s not acceptable. We don’t want this,” she said.

“I think we all stand together in solidarity of accepting the apology. But I have not heard anyone … say ‘yes’ we like this proposal.”

WATCH | Daughter of Doukhobor camp survivors describes conditions at sanatorium: 

Daughter of children held in B.C. Doukhobor camp describes harrowing conditions

Lorraine Walton’s mother and father were taken from their parents in the 1950s and held in a New Denver sanatorium for multiple years. She tells CBC News of her parents describing starvation and abuse at the hands of guards.

Taken from family home

In addition to delivering its apology Tuesday, the government will provide $10 million for cultural, historical and health programs.

Kabatoff was eight when she and her siblings were taken from the family’s home in  Krestova, B.C., and sent to live at a former tuberculosis sanatorium in New Denver, B.C., about 150 kilometres east of Kelowna.

“There was at least six of us in the back seat [of the police car], piled one on top of the other, shaking, crying,” said Kabatoff, who recalls how officers came to take the children early one morning in 1954.

WATCH | A clip from a 1958 CBC News documentary about the Doukhobor children: 

From the Archives: Doukhobor children taken from families

In this 1958 clip from the CBC program Close-Up, members of the Sons of Freedom Doukhobors visit their children, who were forcibly removed from their parents in the 1950s and placed in a former tuberculosis sanatorium in New Denver, B.C.

In a written statement issued Feb. 1, Sharma said her government recognized both the apology and compensation were “long overdue.”

On Tuesday, she said, “I know no amount of compensation or money is going to make the pain go away. But I do hope that fund that’s going to be directed to the community will give them some relief.”

Sharma said $3.75 million of the $10 million will go to a health and wellness fund that will be redirected to survivors and their descendants. 

Between 1953 and 1959, some 200 children from families belonging to the Sons of Freedom Doukhobors were sent to the camp, where many report they suffered physical and psychological abuse, including being strapped across the hands for speaking in their native Russian, and only seeing their parents twice a month from behind a chain link fence that they were forced to build.

“I didn’t know how to be a mom because I didn’t have a hug or a kiss from my mom,” said Kabatoff. “I had to kiss her through the fence.”

The Doukhobors are a group of exiled Russian Christians who settled in B.C.’s West Kootenay in the early 20th century.

The Sons of Freedom, a small group within the Doukhobor community, opposed the public education system, and clashed with the government over the right to educate their children at home, earning a reputation across B.C. for their occasional naked protests, and periodically burning down their own homes as a rejection of materialism.

“For decades this was described as a Doukhobor problem. As if every Doukhobor subscribed to what was going on in terms of public nudity and torching houses,” said retired University of Victoria law professor John McLaren.

“That’s never been true,” he said.

Retired UBC law professor John McLearn says the Doukhobors settled across western Canada including B.C., Saskatchewan and parts of Manitoba.
Retired law professor John McLaren says the Doukhobors settled across western Canada including B.C., Saskatchewan and parts of Manitoba. (Dillon Hodgin/CBC)

Government apology

On Tuesday, B.C. Premier David Eby delivered the apology on behalf of the NDP government, acknowledging the wrongdoings done to the Doukhobor community.

“Constitutional protections would not let that happen today, and it should not have happened then,” Eby said. 

“These actions caused immense and immeasurable harm.”

Speaking on behalf of the official opposition, Kamloops-South Thompson MLA Todd Stone described what happened to Douhkobor families as a “shameful, black mark,” on B.C.’s history. 

“As a father, I can only imagine what was going through these parents’ minds,” he said, as he described how hundreds of children were removed from their homes. Stone said no apology can make up for what happened to the Doukhobors and the intergenerational trauma that came of it.

In a similar vein, B.C. Green Party Leader Sonia Furstenau said many of those who suffered did not live to hear the government’s formal apology. 

‘Make this right’

After the public apology in the Legislature on Tuesday, Eby, Sharma and other officials met with those such as Walton.

She thanked Eby for the apology but called on him to consult more with her community over the historical wrong and the compensation package that was offered.

“Absolutely, we’ll work with you to make this right,” he said.

Tuesday’s apology has been more than 20 years in the making and follows two reports from B.C.’s Ombudsperson, which called on the province to make a formal apology to affected Doukhobors and compensate them, neither of which were delivered in the ensuing years.

The Doukhobors themselves have also pressed for an apology and compensation since the 1990s.

The Ombudsperson is an independent officer of the legislature who investigates complaints of unfair or unreasonable treatment at the hands of provincial or local officials.

The government says the $10-million package will be used to:

  • preserve and promote the community’s cultural heritage and historic sites;
  • support educational and cultural programs;
  • conduct research and archive vital documents and oral histories; and
  • expand access to mental-health services and wellness programs.

Today, there are an estimated 100 survivors of the Sons of Freedom group. Many are in their 70s and 80s.

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