Day-trip to Piers Island: Reminiscing About the Penitentiary, 1932-1935
by Gunter Schaarschmidt
From 1932 to 1935, over 600 Sons of Freedom were interred in a special penitentiary built on Piers Island in the Strait of Georgia between Vancouver Island and the mainland Pacific coast of British Columbia, Canada. Seventy-three years later, on June 17, 2008, Dr. Gunter Schaarschmidt of the University of Victoria returned to Piers Island and visited some of the physical features left from the penitentiary camp site. The following is an account of his observations and photos from his excursion. Reproduced by permission from ISKRA No. 2011 (Grand Forks, USCC, October 3, 2008).
On June 17, 2008, the University of Victoria
Retirees Association organized a day-trip to Piers Island just 0.8 km (about
half a mile) northwest of the Swartz Bay Ferry Terminal on the Saanich
Peninsula on Vancouver Island. The island is inhabited by some 300 people
many of whom live there for only part of the year. The island is accessible
only by private boat – there are no roads except a dirt circle dirt road and
walking trails criss-crossing the island. There are no stores but there is a
Fire Station and an emergency helicopter landing site. For the retirees
group one of its members and an island resident had chartered the harbour
ferry that is normally used for Eco-trips from the pier at the end of Beacon
Avenue in Sidney. The group assembled in the Piers Island parking lot next
to the Swartz Bay Ferry Terminal and was ferried to the island in two trips.
One of the trips arrived at a southern pier across from the ferry terminal,
the other at the pier of the property that had been built on the same site
as the Penitentiary for the Sons of Freedom (svobodniki), a radical
group of Doukhobors, on the north side of the Island.
An excerpt from a government document describes
the establishment of the camp in part as follows (HWC/WJ 1934:1):
The incarceration of the Freedomites proceeded in 18 escorted parties
consisting of between 9 and 40 individuals, from August 11, 1932, to
December 22, 1932. None of them served their full sentence of three years.
No doubt the most important reason for their early release was a cost-saving
effort in the difficult economic situation of the Depression years in Canada
(see Skolrood 1995:27). Rationalizing, the warden H.W. Cooper wrote on June
20, 1934 (HWC/WJ 1934:13):
However, others do not quite see it that way stating that “their (the Sons
of Freedom) attitudes were unchanged, in fact, their resolve to disobey the
state was enhanced by a consciousness of martyrdom achieved at comparatively
little person discomfort” (Woodcock & Avakumovic 1968:318).
The release of the Sons of Freedom proceeded in various stages – the last
group of about 30 men was transferred to the New Westminster penitentiary
before June, 1935. The camp was then demolished for the most part except the
wharf and two buildings that had housed the penitentiary officers and
Of the University of Victoria retirees group visiting the island in June this year, not many
knew about the “Doukhobor period”. It is, however, well remembered by the
residents of Piers Island. In fact, on a small table with other information
about the island, our host had placed a photograph of the campsite with the
sign “Piers Island Penitentiary” attached to the pier post. This had
apparently been given to him by the real estate agent at the time of the
purchase of the property. Skolrood’s book (click
here to read Doukhobor chapter) has a full page of photographs
accompanying his chapter entitled “The Doukhobor Period, 1932-1935” (Skolrood
1995:14-32). This is a chapter well worth reading for anyone interested in
the history of the Doukhobor movement as seen from the perspective of a
former resident of Piers Island.
Included are four photographs that I took of some of the physical features left from the penitentiary camp site. There is first and foremost the old pier post in Figures 1 and 2 (but without the sign “Piers Island Penitentiary”). Figure 3 shows today's pier looking out to the NE. Then, there is the site of the camp flag post now marked by the owner’s maple-leaf flag (Figure 4). And, finally, there is the rear view of the new owner’s property which for some reason evoked in me the sight of the former women’s compound (Figure 5). Mentally, I had the eerie feeling of Doukhobor voices united in song in the beautiful surroundings of the camp whose barbed-wire fencing no doubt prevented the camp inhabitants from enjoying the scenery as much as we visitors were able to do more than three quarters of a century later.
To read about Gunter Schaarschmidt's research about the Doukhobor dialect spoken in Canada, see Four Norms - One Culture: Doukhobor Russian in Canada and also English for Doukhobors: 110 Years of Russian-English Contact in Canada. For his translations of 19th century German articles about the Doukhobors, see The Dukhobortsy in Transcaucasia, 1854-1856 by Heinrich Johann von Paucker and Doukhobors in the Caucasus, 1863-1864 by Alexander Petzholdt.