British Columbia’s attorney general has formally apologized to members of the Sons of Freedom Doukhobor Community, including those who were forcibly taken from their parents more than 70 years ago.
In the 1950s, hundreds of children of Sons of Freedom members were taken from their families and placed into care in provincial institutions including a former tuberculosis sanatorium in New Denver in part because their parents opposed government rules and refused to send them to public schools.
About 275 people gathered at an event held at the Castlegar and District Community Centre Thursday to hear Niki Sharma’s apology.
Between the speeches given by politicians and the attorney general, the room was filled with traditional Doukhobor singing. Survivors were also given an opportunity to share their stories.
Sharma acknowledged the children were “mistreated both physically and psychologically.”
She also said the government levied fines against the group and seized communal property over infractions that included school absenteeism.
Between 1931 and 1959, hundreds of Sons of Freedom members were convicted and handed sentences of up to three years.
“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,” Sharma read from a statement delivered at the event and included in a press release distributed by her office.
“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.”
Sharma’s 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 Doukhobors and their families.
The compensation package includes $5 million to create a Sons of Freedom Doukhobor Legacy Fund to preserve and promote the community’s cultural heritage and to support educational initiatives, cultural programs and the maintenance of cultural sites. Another $1.25 million is dedicated to research and archival services to better understand the history of the Sons of Freedom Doukhobors and archive key documents and oral histories. FInally, $3.75 million will go towards a Health and Wellness Fund, focused on the needs of the Sons of Freedom Doukhobor community, especially the survivors and their descendants.
The Attorney General’s Office says more information on the funding will be available as details are finalized.
Sharma said that a system for allowing the community to access the funding will be set up this spring.
“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,” reads the statement delivered by Sharma.
Last year, B.C.’s ombudsman Jay Chalke called for the province to provide financial compensation “for individuals and the group,” as well as make an apology.
The Sons of Freedom were a small group 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 a separate statement, Premier David Eby said Thursday the province forcibly removed children, leaving parents to visit them through chain link 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 attend a similar event in Grand Forks on Friday and Eby will also deliver the apology in the legislature on Feb. 27.
With files from The Canadian Press