The descendents of the Sons of Freedom sect have launched an action through B.C.’s Human Rights Tribunal demanding an apology from the B.C. government for using the police to force them into a residential school in New Denver back in the 1950s.
I have two questions to ask the plaintiffs in this case. Why didn’t your parents just send you to school when you were kids? Didn’t your parents want you to learn English like everyone else in this country?
The Sons of Freedom left the Prairies and quit being Doukhobors (my people) to continue living the way our ancestors did back in Russia. Why go to such lengths to escape oppression in Czarist Russia only to attempt to re-create our Old-World existence here in the New World?
For my great grandparents and their children, adopting the language and ways of our new culture, for the most part, came naturally. Sure, it was difficult for some, and learning a new language is never easy. But my predecessors knew that after being rescued by Queen Victoria (who had been petitioned by none other than Leo Tolstoy to help us), and after receiving free land, we owed at least some debt of gratitude to Canada. Not so for the Sons of Freedom.
They claimed children were being taught militarism in Canadian schools; an absurd notion, largely based on the fact that portraits of England’s King and Queen hung in public schools, just as they do to this day. But to hear my dad and granddad explain it, rural schooling in the 1950s comprised entirely of reading, writing and arithmetic, precisely the type of learning we had been denied when we were illiterate peasants back in Russia!
But, alas, to the recalcitrant Sons of Freedom it all had to be escaped. And, once established in the Interior of B.C., they went as far as to burn down their own property, blow up public property, and march in the nude, just to demonstrate their rejection of all that was Canadian. This was quite embarrassing for those of us who stayed in the Prairies.
But it was the refusal to send their children to school that really set the communal Sons of Freedom apart from independent Doukhobors like my grandparents.
To this day, failing to send a child to school is not taken lightly by officials, and rightly so. But for the Sons of Freedom it was their way or the highway. And that brings us to where this story began… to the point where the Royal Canadian Mounted Police were called upon by provincial authorities here in B.C. to take children away simply so they could be educated, and not be radicalized like their parents whose actions, let’s face it, often amounted to terrorism, plain and simple.
Quite unlike this country’s First Nations’ people who had no choice whatsoever in being forced to watch as their kids were taken away to residential schools, sometimes never to be seen again, the Sons of Freedom had a choice.
Try to imagine sticking to your guns on a matter of principle and not being willing to concede, not one iota, as your own flesh and blood was being ripped away from you. Wouldn’t you at least consider conceding the point?
While my grandparents and every other independent Doukhobor that stayed in Saskatchewan embraced education, the Sons of Freedom were antagonistically intent on rejecting it, so much so that they were willing to let their own children be taken away just to demonstrate their resolve. Shameful!
So again I ask the plaintiffs… Why didn’t your parents concede when the police arrived, and agree to send you to school?
There is no valid claim here. The people who ran B.C.’s Ministry of Education so long ago did the right thing. The issue is, quite clearly, with the parents of the plaintiffs.
Mischa Popoff is a writer of Doukhobor descent with a degree in history.