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.
Plan of Piers Island, British Columbia. Note the Doukhobor penitentiary was located on ten acres in the northwest corner of the island, off of Satellite Channel.
Why was there a need for the creation of the Penitentiary on Piers Island for the Sons of Freedom, far away from their area of settlement in 1908? First of all, one must clearly differentiate between the group of Freedomite Doukhobors (svobodniki) and the Doukhobors as a whole, a pacifist philosophical movement. Lest it be thought that the group of Freedomites are all extreme anarchists, “there are many sincere and creative personalities in the group” (see Tarasoff 2002:93 who devotes an entire section to some of them on pp. 93-98). In fact, the Freedomite group has been very productive in writing diaries and autobiographies (see Rak 2004:115-142).
Figure 1. The old pier post of the camp (the new pier is farther to the right out of range of the photograph). Photo by Gunter Schaarschmidt.
An excerpt from a government document describes the establishment of the camp in part as follows (HWC/WJ 1934:1):
In May and June, 1932, at Nelson and Grand Forks, B.C., 303 males and 285 females of the faction above-named (”the Sons of Freedom faction of the Doukhobor sect”) were convicted of having publicly displayed themselves in a nude condition, and were sentenced to three years imprisonment in the British Columbia Penitentiary.
There being no accommodation for these convicts at the New Westminster Institution, arrangements were made to construct a temporary penitentiary at Piers Island, British Columbia.
Figure 2. Another view of the old pier post. Photo by Gunter Schaarschmidt.
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):
The object of the Administration has been to induce in the Sons of Freedom , confidence in Canada and Canadian ways so that upon their release they will be better citizens of the Dominion. There are signs that this has, to some extent, been attained.
Figure 3. View from the former campsite to the new pier post looking out to the NE. Photo by Gunter Schaarschmidt.
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 matrons.
Figure 4. The owner’s flag post of property No. 119 is on the same spot as the old camp flag post. Photo by Gunter Schaarschmidt.
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.
Figure 5. Rear view of the camp site (now property No. 119). Photo by Gunter Schaarschmidt.
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.
- HWC/WJ (1934). Piers Island Penitentiary (Memorandum from H.W.Cooper, Warden, British Columbia Penitentiary, to Superintendent of Penitentiaries, Ottawa).
- Rak, Julie (2004). Negotiated Memory: Doukhobor Autobiographical Discourse. Vancouver/Toronto: UBC Press.
- Skolrood, A. Harold (1995). Piers Island: A Brief History of the Island and Its People 1886-1993. Lethbridge, Alberta: Paramount Printers.
- Tarasoff, Koozma J. (2002). Spirit Wrestlers: Doukhobor Pioneers’ Strategies for Living. Ottawa: LEGAS/Spirit Wrestler Publishing.
- Woodcock, George & Ivan Avakumovic (1968). The Doukhobors. Toronto: Oxford University Press.
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.