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Canada's 'Multicultural Mosaic' Under Strain
50 years on, justice eludes Doukhobor children
David Kootnikoff (kaspian)     Print Article 
Published 2005-07-06 11:10 (KST)   
Last week when the Canadian Parliament passed the country's same sex marriage law, Canadians were given an opportunity to indulge in one of their favorite pastimes: lording it over the Americans. Equally as popular as hockey, it's a sport this federation of 32 million pursues with a singular passion. Once again, the progressive nature of Canada's social policies had won out. Canadians love to count the ways in which they differ from their hyper-neighbor to the south.

On closer inspection, however, all is not well in the Great White North. The country's multicultural mosaic is straining under the weight of neglected injustices. While Canada may like to promote itself as a safe haven of inclusivity, its historical record suggests otherwise.

In the most western province of British Columbia alone, the past is strewn with discriminatory practices. The mandatory head tax imposed on Chinese immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, along with the forced internment of the Japanese during World War II reveals a disturbing lack of commitment to basic human rights.

"Bread, Salt and Water" - Doukhobors in British Columbia, 1927
©2005 SFU
More recently, the experiences of the Doukhobor community in the interior of the province implies that justice may be an exclusive commodity designed only for the few.

Russian for "spirit-wrestlers," the Doukhobors are a pacifistic religious sect of Russian immigrants who began arriving in Canada in 1899. Persecuted by the Tsarist authorities for refusing military conscription, they were welcomed by the Canadian government as part of an immigration drive to open up the barren prairies in western Canada.

Once they began settling, however, changes in government policy, specifically over the legality of communal land holdings and a school curriculum that included military history, ignited conflict. These tensions led to divisions within the group itself.

The Doukhobors eventually splintered into factions. One moderate group accepted compromise and sought to assimilate into mainstream Canadian society. A more radical sect, known as the Sons of Freedom Doukhobors, resisted and tried to preserve their core identity and beliefs. Active in British Columbia through to the early 1960s, they were a constant thorn in the side of the authorities, engaging in protests that involved nude demonstrations, arson and bombings targeting unmanned government facilities.

Unfortunately, the children of the adults were caught in the middle. From 1953-1959, approximately 200 Sons of Freedom children aged 7-15 years were confined at the New Denver residential school in an attempt to forcefully assimilate, or "Canadianize" the children, as one government document put it at the time. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police, with government support, forcibly removed the children from their homes in a planned directive called "Operation Snatch." This involved late night or early morning raids and resulted in some children as young as seven being manhandled into police cars.

Doukhobors coming to Canada from Russia, 1898
©2005 CanArchive
In 1999 the B.C. Ombudsman addressed this dark chapter in a scathing report titled Righting the Wrong. The Ombudsman found the government was responsible for systemic abuses and breaches of international law, specifically the United Nations Covenant on the Rights of the Child.

The report implored the B.C. government to take immediate action to begin the process of healing by delivering a public and unconditional apology to the victims, now adults in their 50s and 60s.

Today, over five years later, the government of Premier Gordon Campbell, reelected for a second five year term last May, has not only refused an apology- it has been accused of committing further abuse. In a move designed to placate critics and nullify claims for compensation, the government began construction on a memorial monument for the victims at the site of the notorious residential school in the spring of 2004.

Gordon Campbell, premier of British Columbia
©2005 BCGov
It was an unusual decision made unilaterally without consulting the surviving members of the group. Walter Swetlishoff, a survivor and spokesman for the group, New Denver Survivors, has filed a complaint with the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal while continuing to wait for the government to adhere to its own Ombudsman's recommendations.

According to Swetlishoff, the government monument was an affront to traditional Doukhobor beliefs and a further example of government abuse.

"Sons of Freedom Doukhobors have never believed in erecting monuments for memorial reasons. This is the ultimate insult to us. We belief the spirit of God is in people, not things. We never agreed to it. A second wave of abuse has started," says Swetlishoff.

Attorney General at the time, Geoff Plant expressed a statement of "regret" to the survivors in the B.C. Legislature in October 2004, but this fell short of the recommended apology. In late November, after a heated meeting with Swetlishoff and his supporters, the government halted construction on the planned monument. In an email addressed to this reporter in March of this year, Plant wrote:

"It (the statement) was necessary to balance the competing concerns of all citizens of British Columbia. Given the feedback that I have received about the statement, it is evident that there is a significant divergence of opinion on what steps the Government of British Columbia should or should not take to help forward reconciliation and healing."

As Canada turned 138 years old on July 1, the country is still struggling to create, in the words of the late former Prime Minister, Pierre Elliot Trudeau, "a just society." The experiences of its minorities confirm there is still much work to be done to extend justice to all its citizens.
©2005 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter David Kootnikoff

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