Forced Doukhobor Schooling in British Columbia

by William Janzen

Historically, Doukhobors had not emphasized formal education. They were concerned that schools would lead their children away from their community life and religious ideals. Also, their view of ‘the God within’ made it less important. Despite these views, in Saskatchewan, the entry of Doukhobors into the public school system went relatively smoothly, in part due to its localized nature, the leniency of civil servants in enforcing attendance requirements, and the openness of the largely Independent Doukhobor population towards education. In British Columbia, however, the Doukhobors’ stronger communalism and greater hesitancy about the larger society, combined with the rigid approach of the provincial government, produced dramatically different results. The following article by William Janzen examines the forced schooling of Doukhobors in British Columbia. Reproduced by permission from his book, “Limits on Liberty, The Experience of Mennonite, Hutterite and Doukhobor Communities in Canada” (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1990), it examines three distinct periods: 1909-1913, 1914-1927 and 1927-1959.

1909-1913: Acceptance, Rejection, and a Commission of Inquiry

The story of the Doukhobors and public schools in British Columbia is complex. Virtually all the Doukhobors who moved there belonged to the Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood. As such they had both a stronger communalism and a greater hesitancy about the larger society. The approach of the provincial government was different, too. British Columbia had had a public school system since the 1870s. It even had an attendance requirement, though it applied only to children aged 7-12, and only if they lived within three miles of a school accessible by public roads. Also, the system operated under a central Council of Public Instruction with relatively little scope for local boards. This circumstance tended to bring school issues into the arena of provincial politics even though it might have been possible to resolve them locally.

The Doukhobors’ first contact with British Columbia’s school system came soon after they arrived in 1909. By 1910, some who lived close to public schools discovered that their children were expected to attend. They then complied without complaint. In 1911 the school district of Grand Forks built the Carson school near Doukhobor lands to accommodate more Doukhobor children. Soon thereafter the Doukhobors, who were quickly becoming established in their new settlements, built a school right on their land near Brilliant. It opened in 1912 as an official public school with an all-Doukhobor board and an enrolment of forty-eight pupils. The teacher, Beulah Clarke Darlington, spoke highly of the Doukhobors and of the experience in general. In a letter to a local newspaper she stated: ‘It is a relief to find people with no pretense who are willing to work with their hands, and who show, by the wonderful development of that country, that they are capable of working with their brains as well; who are content with simple pleasures and who keep a right outlook on life because they are not striving after wealth or trying to attain a position in society which is worthless when procured.’ The Doukhobors were very pleased with Darlington as a teacher. They planned to expand class-room facilities for the coming year and encouraged Darlington to bring some of her friends also to serve as teachers.

Then, suddenly, there was an interruption. The schoolchildren were withdrawn, not to return until four years later. A major reason was the arrest of five Doukhobors who had been sentenced to three months in prison for failing to register a death. The chief constable for the Grand Forks area met with Peter V. Verigin and was informed that the Doukhobors, at a large meeting, had decided not to register births, deaths, and marriages even though the law required it. When the constable reported this information to the attorney-general he was told: ‘You may inform Mr. Verigin … that the laws of British Columbia must be obeyed … and … will be strictly carried out, without any favour being shown to him and members of his Society.’ The Doukhobors then sent a letter, dated 16 July 1912, addressed to ‘The Government of British Columbia,’ to explain their position. They said: ‘We believe that the favourable adorable power is ruling all the world and endeavour to be written in eternal life book, and propose ourselves obligation to live quietly and to employ honest labour on the earth, so as to get substance. All the human race registration we calculate unnecessary. We can say, briefly, our religion confines on two commandments to be gentle and to employ agriculture.’

Doukhobor children in flax field, Grand Forks, BC, circa 1920. British Columbia Archives C-01745.

The public, which at first had welcomed the Doukhobors for contributing to the economic development of the area, now became more critical. Newspapers pointed out that they were not taking the oath and that they were not co-operating fully with the 1911 census. Local citizens expressed concern that the Doukhobors were becoming numerous, that they might ‘swamp the community,’ and ‘that it would be impossible for them to be assimilated.’ In response, the Conservative government led by Premier Richard McBride appointed a royal commission to make a broad inquiry. The person chosen for the task was William Blackmore, a newspaper editor from the nearby town of Nelson.

When Blackmore came to the Doukhobor community, later in 1912, he was welcomed in an elaborate way. The Doukhobors showed him their orchards, sawmills, and other prospering enterprises, and talked of their plans for further development. They also invited him to their religious assembly, where the children sang for him. In one such ceremony, a young boy stepped forward and said: ‘We’ve been attending school during the eleven weeks it was in session, but we no longer wish to go to school again, because the teacher, though very kind, belonged to the people who had put our friends in prison.’ Blackmore stayed with the Doukhobors for almost four months and held long public hearings. He also made a trip to their settlements on the prairies. At the end he produced a report that was extensive and remarkably sympathetic to the Doukhobors but it did not relieve them from the responsibility of abiding by the established laws of the province.

Regarding their refusal to register births, deaths, and marriages, Blackmore stated: ‘They will not register because they desire to remain unmolested in their communal life. They want no interference, as they call it, which means no intrusion of any kind. They claim that birth and death are the acts of God, and call for no cognizance on the part of man; and as to marriage, they take the high ground that it is purely a matter between the contracting parties.’ Blackmore also found that the Doukhobors feared that registration would somehow lead to military service. In their own words they said: ‘The registration intimately… tied …with religious faith … we wish to be citizens of all the world, and do not wish to register our children in the Royal Crown Government books … We are not refusing to give knowledge of increase or decrease of our Doukhobor Community people in ten or five years once. But to enter in your register books we will never do it. Because we calculate we are already registered in the Book of Life before Him the Founder, which is called Eternity.’

Regarding public schools, Blackmore found that the Doukhobors were concerned that ‘education was likely to make the children discontented with the life of cultivation of the soil followed by their parents,’ and ‘separate the children from their parents and from the customs and habits of the Community.’ He reported further that the women had said that ‘among them crime was unknown, and that, whereas among educated people poverty existed, no Doukhobor ever suffered for want of food or clothing; so … while the laws spoken of were needed for other people, they did not think they were required among the Doukhobors.’

In a statement of their own, the Doukhobors listed three reasons for their objection to the public schools:

1) The school education teaches and prepares the people, that is children, to military service, where shed harmless blood of the people altogether uselessly. The most well educated people consider this dreadfully sinful such business as war, lawful. We consider this great sin.

2) The school teaching at the present time had reached only to expedience for the easy profit, thieves, cheaters, and to large exploitation working-class laborious on the earth. And we ourselves belong to working-class people and we try by the path of honest labour, so we may reap the necessary maintenance, and to this we adopt our children to learn at wide school of Eternal Nature.

3) The school teaching separates all the people on the earth. Just as soon as the person reached read and write education, then, within a short time leaves his parents and relations and undertakes unreturnable journey on all kinds of speculation, depravity and murder life. And never think of this duty, respecting his parents and elder-ones, but he looks opposite, turning themselves, enslaving of the people, for theirs own licentious and insatiableness gluttony … educated people, swallow down all the national peoples … the people suffer from not having land even a piece of daily bread … we distinctly understand instruction of Christ, we holding on to Community life and we calculate all the people on earth are our brothers.

These three objections — that education in public schools leads to militarism, that it is not practical, and that it alienates people from one another, thus militating against community life — were to be referred to again and again in the following half-century as the controversy continued.

In his report, Blackmore spoke positively of how the Doukhobors themselves provided for the education of their children:

It must not, however, be supposed that, because this misguided people refuse elementary education for their children, they do not give them the best home training.

The children are intelligent, respective, and observant. The home life is almost ideal. They are taught all the cardinal virtues with which most of us, as children, we acquainted, but which are now too often regarded as old-fashioned — such as obedience, reverence, industry, and thrift; and it is not a little to the credit of their parents to find that the chief objection that they entertain to education is the fear that secular teaching may undermine the religious spirit.

Blackmore also praised their capability as agriculturalists, their irrigation system, their large orchards, and the other enterprises that they, as the Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood, had collectively developed. Blackmore stated:

It is not out of place at this point to comment on the wonderful success that has attended the fruit-growing operations of the Doukhobors. To them it was a new industry. They had never been engaged in it before coming to British Columbia. Yet, today, if you were to go through their orchards, you would find that they are the cleanest, the best-kept, the heaviest-cropped of any in the district…

In addition … the Doukhobors have manifested a spirit of enterprise at Brilliant by putting in a splendid concrete reservoir capable of holding 1,000,000 gallons of water, and from this reservoir the water is being piped all over the Settlement. It is to be used both for domestic purposes and irrigation.

The reservoir will be supplied partially from a creek in the mountains, and partially by an immense pumping plant which the Doukhobors have erected … on the banks of the Kootenay River. This is the largest pumping plant in British Columbia …

Besides the farming industry, the Doukhobors have established sawmills on all their properties, which are used chiefly to convert the timber into building material …They have also a good brick-making works at Grand Forks, which is producing a high-class brick, commanding a ready sale. This brick is being used in the new Government Buildings at Grand Forks, which is a fair testimony as to its quality.

While recommending that the Doukhobors should be required to obey provincial laws, Blackmore cautioned against ‘drastic steps … to force their immediate compliance,’ stating that ‘persecution is fuel to the flames of fanaticism. Withdraw the fuel, and the fire will die out.’ He suggested a policy of ‘patience with the people’ and ‘pressure on their leaders’ and that, ‘if it is found necessary to resort to prosecution and conviction ensues, it is desirable that the punishment should take the form of fines rather than imprisonment.’ Prison sentences, he felt, might nurture a martyrdom complex. He also recommended that to facilitate the registration of births, deaths, and marriages, a member of the Doukhobor Community be appointed as a sub-registrar. And to facilitate matters in the schools he said that ‘Russian teachers could be employed in conjunction with Canadian teachers, and that the curriculum be modified so as to include only elementary subjects.’ He also suggested that a permanent Doukhobor agent be appointed to serve somewhat like an Indian agent.

Most of Blackmore’s observations and recommendations were such that a mutually satisfactory compromise might have developed. But the Doukhobors’ disposition towards a compromise was drastically set back because, at the very end of the report, Blackmore recommended that their exemption from military service be cancelled. This suggestion was most upsetting to the Doukhobors. They had questioned Blackmore about the possibility of war between Britain and Germany, about the probability of Canadian involvement, and about the status of their exemption. Now they felt confirmed in their suspicion that there was a connection between registration, school attendance, and military service.

1914-1927: Pressing Community Doukhobors to Accept Schools

While Blackmore’s final recommendation disappointed the Doukhobors, the generally moderate tone of his report disappointed the authorities. Supported by local citizens, officials soon discarded his counsel for patience. They rejected a Doukhobor offer that for vital statistics, they check the Community’s records. The public wanted compliance with the existing law; to gain evidence for prosecutions they exhumed bodies and raided a village. Naturally, this approach was upsetting to the Doukhobors. Regarding the schools, the Doukhobors were now also concerned about a recently introduced program of military drills and rifle shooting. The Department of Education had started the program in order to foster ‘the spirit of patriotism in the boys, leading them to realize that the first duty of every citizen is to be prepared to defend his country.’

Early in 1914, when Doukhobor children were still not in school, the government prepared itself for an unusual course of action. It enacted the Community Regulation Act, which made the Doukhobor Community, that is, the CCUB, liable for an infraction committed by any member. The act referred particularly to infractions relating to vital statistics, school attendance, and the Health Act. It authorized officials to seize, without warrant, the goods and chattels of the Community in order to cover fines not paid by individuals. In one sense, holding the Community liable was understandable. The Doukhobors, as individuals, had little property while as a Community they had a sizeable amount. Nevertheless, as a form of collective punishment this law was a departure from Canada’s tradition of justice. More seriously, the law defined a Community member as any person who, on the oath of one witness, had been found on or about Community lands. This meant that even if the Community expelled trouble-making individuals, which it did on occasion, it could still be liable for the actions of such individuals. Obviously, the Community was extremely vulnerable.

As the authorities became more threatening, some Doukhobors, apparently against the advice of Peter V. Verigin, responded with a threat of their own. They sent a long list of grievances to Attorney-General Bowser and then said: ‘The [Community] Doukhobors, of whom there are six thousand members, are planning beforehand in this case, to all take off what clothes still remaining on them after the plunder they have been subjected to in Saskatchewan, take them and throw them into the faces of your officials in Nelson and Grand Forks, and leave themselves stark naked on the very street of the town. This will be a good illustration to show the attitude taken by the government officials in regards to Doukhobors.’ The attorney-general replied that if the clothes came off the law against indecent exposure would be enforced.

As the confrontation became increasingly intense several non-Doukhobors tried to intervene. Blackmore continued to counsel moderation in the columns of his newspaper. A lawyer from the town of Nelson wrote to the attorney-general: ‘I contend that the Grand Forks people are not playing the game square as far as these people are concerned. They welcomed them to their midst and took their money for the land, and now, when they have made a success of agriculture in that district, they want to drive them out.’ A CPR superintendent urged the government to seek a compromise so as to avoid ‘injury to the religious convictions of the Doukhobors.’ A.E. Miller, inspector of schools, was cautious, too. He predicted that ‘any attempt to enforce attendance will be met with opposition.’ Others, however, supported the action of the government. A group of Quakers from Pennsylvania who had earlier supported the Doukhobors now said: ‘The sooner the Commune is broken up, the sooner will be real progress amongst these simple, misled people.’

For a time the trends pointed towards a harsh confrontation. A.E. Miller was instructed to warn the Doukhobors that ‘the refusal to comply with the requirements as to education would mean the breaking up of their community.’ In August 1915 the attorney-general issued instructions to enforce the Community Regulations Act. At that point, however, certain technical obstacles were noticed. The property, until 1917, was registered in the name of Peter V. Verigin, not in the name of the Community. Also, school attendance was compulsory only if people lived within three miles of a school, accessible by a public road. Most roads in the Doukhobor settlements were private.

Before these legalities could be tested a compromise was reached. On 20 September 1915 the attorney-general promised a delegation of Doukhobors that no military training would be forced upon their children and that they would be excused from religious exercises. The Doukhobors in turn promised that their children would return to both the Carson and the Brilliant public schools. As a result, a period of co-operation followed. The Doukhobors built nine additional public schools although these were administered not by local boards but by an official trustee appointed by the government. At one point, in the 1920-1 school year, the enrolment rose to 414, which was more than 80 per cent of those eligible, although attendance was little more than 50 per cent. Inspector Miller, following a policy of caution and patience, did not press for full attendance.

This co-operation lasted for several years, but soon after the First World War there were strains related to the Doukhobors’ exemption from military service and to their prosperity. In February 1919 a meeting of returned soldiers in Nelson demanded that all Doukhobors be deported to Russia and that their lands be given to veterans. A meeting of citizens declared its support for the veterans and at one point twelve ex-soldiers went to Verigin to force their demands upon him. Apparently Verigin then signed an agreement to turn over the Doukhobor lands to the Soldiers’ Settlement Board but a few days later he wired Arthur Meighen, the minister of the Interior, that he had signed under duress. Meighen, the Conservative who according to George Woodcock ‘consistently proved fairer to the Doukhobors than his Liberal predecessor Frank Oliver,’ ruled that the Soldiers’ Settlement Board had no right to carry out expropriations.

Group of Doukhobor schoolchildren at Brilliant, BC, circa 1920. British Columbia Archives D-01929.

The soldiers’ claim to the land was thus nullified but the general criticism of the Doukhobors continued, leading some Doukhobors to withdraw their children from school. However, a 1920 amendment to the Public Schools Act broadened the compulsory attendance provisions and authorized the construction of schools on the lands of the Doukhobor Community and at its expense. Also, Inspector A.E. Miller, under whose patient supervision things had worked reasonably well, was replaced by E.G. Daniels, who began to press for better attendance. In December 1922, the Grand Forks school board took legal action against eight cases of truancy. Fines were imposed and when they were not paid, some CCUB property, meaning Doukhobor Community property, was seized. However, before it could be sold, Community officials intervened and paid the fines.

In April 1923, Inspector Daniels pressed further. Fines of $50 each were levied on six parents. When they were slow in paying, a large truck, used by the Community for farm work, was seized. Again the Community paid the fines. But soon after, in May 1923, a school building was destroyed by fire. In the months that followed a total of nine schools in the Brilliant area were destroyed, the burnings in each case coinciding with an attempt on the part of the police to seize property in payment of fines.

The burning of schools was a relatively new type of action on the part of the Doukhobors. There were some acts of civil disobedience in their history, and a few times some Doukhobors had destroyed property as a way of witnessing against materialism. However, this more widespread destruction of property was a departure from their tradition. It also created a new dynamic among the Doukhobors. Those who committed these acts were a very small minority. Verigin and other Community leaders publicly declared that the Community as a whole had nothing to do with the burnings and that many of their children were still attending school. At one inquiry a teacher of a burned school testified that the Community Doukhobors had, ‘instead of burning schools, been guarding them and that the destruction has been the work of a small but fanatical element among them.’ The authorities, however, did little to apprehend the guilty individuals. Instead, they followed the orientation of the Community Regulation Act and held the Doukhobor Community liable for the depredations.

While dissociating themselves from the acts of destruction, the Doukhobor Community leaders also charged that School Inspector Daniels was using undue compulsion in pressing for attendance. They warned that if the prosecutions continued, they would not be able to guarantee the safety of other schools. In a letter to the minister of Education, dated 17 May 1923, the Doukhobors said:

It is apparent that the government is only seeking an excuse to create a quarrel with the Doukhobors, on the basis of the school issue.

Doukhobors are fanatics — so the English say, but what can we term the action of Mr.
Daniels? This is more than fanaticism. What compels them to take such measures when the school question is so favourable, and the people are living peacefully, working and cultivating their own holdings … You are only expert at ruining peaceful residents and plundering the proletariat…

There is a saying: ‘One fool can roll a stone off a mountain top into a river, but ten wise men, try as they may cannot take it up again”. Mr. Daniels rolled this stone down, although it’s not yet of very large proportions. He too must salvage it from the nether regions before it is too late.

The tension continued and in April 1924 Verigin’s own house was destroyed. He then appealed to the premier for protection and offered to provide the names of the twenty to thirty arsonists. To his surprise, there was little interest in his offer. The government, instead of seeking to apprehend the guilty individuals, levied special taxes on the Doukhobor Community in order to pay for destroyed property. On 24 October 1924, in an even more drastic event, Peter V. Verigin was killed in a train explosion, along with eight other people. The reason for the accident was never established. Many blamed the ‘fanatical’ Doukhobors but some Doukhobors thought that the Canadian government had killed him just as Russian governments had exiled their earlier leaders.

It was a traumatic time for the Doukhobors. The authorities continued to enforce the law with prosecutions, fines, and the seizure of Community property. Before long most of the Doukhobor children who had been in school were withdrawn. In April 1925, a police inspector, 10 deputies, and 100 citizens forced their way into Community warehouses and seized $20,000 worth of goods, according to the Community’s estimate. This response was unusually severe. But then, suddenly, things changed. Peter P. Verigin, the new Doukhobor leader, who would soon be coming from Russia, sent word that ‘all children should be sent to school and no protests held until he arrived.’ The Doukhobors complied and a three-year calm followed.

In summer 1925 the Doukhobor Community built five new schools and in the next few years it erected several more. When Peter P. Verigin arrived in September 1927 he said he wanted the Doukhobors to have the best possible education while retaining their religious faith. He also had plans to set up private Doukhobor schools. To assist in this matter he had brought along Paul Biriukov, a friend of Tolstoy. Provincial authorities, however, turned down the private school proposal so the effort was redirected into Russian-language classes after regular school hours, and into choirs and other cultural activities. Peter P. Verigin’s acceptance of public schools settled the question for a majority of the Community Doukhobors. Those who were not persuaded gradually became known as the Sons of Freedom.

1927-1959: Forcing School on the ‘Sons of Freedom’ Doukhobors

When Peter P. Verigin arrived in 1927, the Sons of Freedom numbered only a few hundred. Indeed, they were not a fully distinct group, However, their activities and their numbers were about to increase. In January 1929, when most Doukhobor children were in school, this group withdrew its children and announced that they would not be returning. This event resulted in ten arrests, which in turn led to a nude demonstration. Verigin who, in an earlier appeal for unity, had described the Sons of Freedom as ‘the ringing bells who cleared the way for the movement’ now disowned and denounced them. In a press release to newspapers dated 6 February 1929, he stated: ‘Please take notice that the Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood, Limited, had nothing to do and will never have any connection with these people and with their dirty insolent violence, and all their stupid, childish actions, such as unclothing to the skin … these persons do not belong to the membership of the Community. The Community is not taking any responsibility for their actions materially or morally and moreover the Community refuses to consider such persons as brothers and to have any connections with them.’

In March 1929, the Sons of Freedom issued a letter addressed to ‘the Executives of all Countries: Judges, Government Inspectors, Police and all other servants of man-made laws,’ which stated:

The time has come to reveal… why we reject the Government schools and their orders. We are conscious of our history, and denote it by saying that Christ was the first Doukhobor. We are the direct Spiritual descendants of the Apostles of Christ and his followers, the so-called Christian martyrs of this time. It was the same kind of Government as the Canadian, that crucified Christ two thousand years ago … Take our Government school education; people are so hypnotized by it that they do not see that its results are demoralizing. The present Government schools are nurseries of militarism and capitalism … If there are men to be found among educated people like George B. Shaw, Tolstoy, Tagore, Gandhi, and many others, these men received enlightenment through Spiritual Regeneration, heeding the voice of Christ, and if such men are to be given honour, it was not attained by college education. Our whole history is marked by cruel persecutions by the churches, governments and capitalists. These persecutions are on account of our loyalty to Christ’s teaching and our uncompromising refusal to submit to any Authority but God’s.

In summer 1929 there were numerous acts of property destruction. In most instances it was property used by the Community Doukhobors. On 29 June three schools that the Community Doukhobors had built in 1925 were burned. In August three more schools, a flour mill, and a warehouse belonging to the group were destroyed. When two men were arrested, demonstrations involving nudity followed. As a result fifty-five men and forty-nine women were convicted for indecent exposure. Their sentence was six months at the Oakalla Prison Farm in New Westminster. It was the first mass imprisonment. Some of the prisoners’ children were held in custodial care by the province until the parents were released.

In February 1930 those who had been imprisoned were released but they now found that they were no longer accepted as members of the Doukhobor Community. They were expelled. But some Doukhobors in the ‘branch communes,’ especially in the poorer ones, welcomed them. This action led Verigin to withdraw all loyal Community Doukhobors from those areas, thus creating a more complete separation between the Sons of Freedom and the Community Doukhobors. This separation, however, did not prevent the acts of property destruction. However, to the consternation of the Community Doukhobors, the police were still not eager to apprehend the guilty individuals or to protect the community’s property. Peter P. Verigin now complained: ‘The police are standing and looking… what is the use of building schools when they are burning and dynamiting them faster than we can build them.’ The Community Doukhobors wanted the Sons of Freedom removed from their property and offered to pay the cost of a government investigation into the problems. The government instead continued with its policy of holding the Community liable for the destruction of property while arresting individuals who participated in nude demonstrations.

The provincial authorities were strengthened when the federal government, in August 1931, changed the Criminal Code so as to provide ‘a mandatory penalty of three years’ imprisonment for nudity in a public place.’ Because prison terms longer than two years are served in federal penitentiaries, the three-year penalty brought some financial relief to the provincial government. It also helped provincial politicians to project an image of ‘getting tough’ on the Doukhobors. However, lengthening the prison term was not effective as a deterrent to the nudity problem. The demonstrators wanted to make a religious witness, and the longer imprisonment could only enhance the martyrdom they sought. Instead of the demonstrations diminishing, they became larger. One participant later spoke of them in this way: ‘You see the (zealots) refused to pay their taxes, refused to comply with the ownership regulations; they just refused … and had written a kind of appeal to everyone to the effect that the time had arrived when we must take this ownership from Caesar and give it back to God … It was a wonderful sight. I doubt if this planet had ever seen anything like it… It was a protest against land ownership and all ownership — against the Caesar’s injustice that he has taken the cosmic property into his own hands.’

In spring 1932, in a second mass imprisonment, approximately 600 men and women were convicted for nudity and given three-year prison sentences, to be served on Pier’s Island, forty miles from Victoria, where special facilities had been erected. As the train carrying the convicts departed from the Kootenay Valley, the Doukhobors sang the hymns of their martyred forefathers. For them it was a spiritual pilgrimage.

Doukhobor Penitentiary on Piers Island, BC, 1934. British Columbia Archives G-00058.

No less significant than the imprisonment of the parents was the placement of their 365 children in orphanages and industrial schools in Vancouver and Victoria. Clearly, the children had to be cared for while their parents were in prison but the authorities also hoped that by exposing the children to a new environment their attitudes would change. It turned out that the children did not stay the full term. After one year, when a delegation of Independent and Community Doukhobors approached authorities with an offer of taking the Sons of Freedom children into their homes, it was accepted on the condition that they would attend public school. When the parents were released, between October 1934 and July 1935, the children were reunited with them. But it appears that few attitudes had changed. A 1947 study found ‘that some of these children are actively participating in the quasi-anarchistic activities of the present day.’

In the following years the school situation continued to be a public concern. An inspectors’ report for 1935/6 stated: ‘In the community schools and in those schools in which there is a major proportion of Doukhobors, no great progress has been made in Canadianizing this people. The persistence of the Doukhobors in maintaining their identity as such and in resisting Canadian influence is as strong as ever. While the children seem to be happy at school, they quit at the earliest possible date and at the present time there are many of school age who, supported by their parents, are defiantly absenting themselves from school.’

In 1939 the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation suggested that real Canadian homes ‘radiating the best in our Canadian mode of life’ be placed among the Doukhobors in order to help them to establish intimate contacts with ‘lovable Canadians’ and thus overcome their prejudice. Two years later, the Teachers’ Federation stated that ‘the supervision and administration of all Doukhobor schools should be vested in a single official, a trained and experienced educator of vision, initiative and wide sympathies, whose contacts with the Doukhobors will justify affection and confidence, and that it would be part of wisdom to entrust such a man with authority to adjust the curriculum.’ Some years later the federation recommended that teachers for the schools among the Doukhobors be chosen with special care, that they be given a wide liberty to adapt the curriculum to the needs of the Doukhobors, and that attendance be enforced consistently but only with fines and not with prison sentences.

For most of the Second World War period, 1939—45, the Sons of Freedom were relatively quiet. The attacks on the property of the Doukhobor Community ceased in 1938 when that body went into formal bankruptcy, having suffered from the depression, poor management, and government unwillingness to let the Community benefit from programs set up to assist industries affected by the depression. With this collapse, the Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood (CCUB) was renamed the Union of Spiritual Communities of Christ (USCC). But the war and the disappearance of much Community Doukhobor property as a target did not keep the Sons of Freedom quiet for long. In 1944, there was a demonstration in which ‘women’s clothes and jewelry were burnt as symbols of the vanity of modern civilization.’ Soon after, the house of John J. Verigin, who had succeeded Peter P. Verigin as leader of the Community Doukhobors, was burned. From then until 1947 there were over 100 acts of destruction. Most of these were directed against other Doukhobors as a protest against their prosperity and materialism but some involved public property, including a CPR station, a bridge, and schools. The USCC condemned the destruction and John J. Verigin publicly asked for police protection for his followers.

To deal with the continuing problem, the government of British Columbia, in September 1947, appointed Judge H. Sullivan to conduct an inquiry. In the public hearings that followed, one person confessed to having committed twenty-five acts of vandalism in the preceding twelve years, the largest being the 1943 burning of the $400,000 jam factory at Brilliant, long owned by the Community Doukhobors but taken over by the government in 1939. This person explained: I believe that this was necessary to wake up our brothers from materialism, which is the main source of patriotism.’ One person wrote to Sullivan that ‘schools, forced upon the Doukhobors by the government, were destroyed by fire because schools are propagators of a false conception of civilization, patronizing the beast, militarism.’ Others came to the hearings and created ‘an epidemic of true and false confessions, of accusations and counter-accusations that brought an atmosphere of pseudo-religious hysteria into the courtrooms.’ After four months of hearings Judge Sullivan was exasperated. He felt it was useless to continue ‘until the crazy people are put in the mental asylum and the criminals locked up in the penitentiary.’ As for Doukhobor children, they should be educated with a view toward assimilation, he said. His brief recommendations did not, however, lead to a program of action.

Meanwhile, the nude demonstrations and acts of property destruction continued. In summer 1950, over 400 Sons of Freedom were in jail for nudity and arson. By now another commission was at work. The president of the University of British Columbia had agreed, at the request of the attorney-general, to assemble a group of social scientists for a more thorough study. Chaired by anthropologist H.B. Hawthorn, the study lasted two years and involved twelve researchers. Their lengthy report, like the Blackmore report of 1912, showed considerable sympathy and respect for the Doukhobors but called also for compliance with the laws. As a matter of strategy, it recommended ‘a balance of pressures and inducements.’ Claudia Lewis, one of the social scientists engaged in the study, advised against removing children from their parents. Instead, schooling should be made more acceptable to the Doukhobors. She suggested that Doukhobors be included on local boards, that the practices of saluting the flag and singing patriotic songs be discontinued, that some teaching of the Russian language and music be included, that the reading program be modified to include excerpts from Tolstoy, and that some aspects of the social studies program be changed, too. Notwithstanding these proposals for change, the report did not rule out prosecution as a way of dealing with cases of habitual truancy.

As with the moderate Blackmore report of 1911, the Hawthorn report was not followed, at least not immediately. The government that had commissioned the study was defeated in the 1952 election. The Social Credit party that came to power was in a minority situation at first, so in 1953 it went back to the people to get a majority. In doing so, ‘getting tough with the Doukhobors’ became a priority. The Social Credit party received the desired majority and, on 9 September 1953, 148 Doukhobor adults were arrested and imprisoned for parading nude near a school. They were taken to Vancouver in a train that had been especially prepared for them. There, the next day, a court was convened in a community hall and all those arrested were sentenced to three years at the Oakalla prison.

In addition, 104 children were loaded into buses and taken to New Denver, an old mining town, where the buildings of an old sanitorium served as their dormitory. The dormitory was surrounded by a high wire fence and the government invoked the Children’s Protection Act to make them wards of the Provincial Superintendent of Child Welfare. Occasional police raids on Sons of Freedom settlements brought in more children. In one such raid, seventy police officers entered the small village of Krestova before dawn and seized forty children. According to one mother’s account:

On January 18th [1955] at eight o’clock, in the morning my little son awoke me and come to lie down beside me as though he knew it would be the last time. Then all of a sudden we heard a loud banging on the door, we thought it would break. Three RCMP officers came in and went straight to the bed waving the clubs in their hands in front of me and my child, and they said: ‘How old is the boy?’ We told them he is only six years old. The boy started to cry and begged us not to take him, but they said: ‘Get him dressed or we’ll take him in his underwear.’ So, I dressed my little son for the last time, and he was taken from us who is not even school age. Only a mother who has gone through the same thing will know what it means to have the dearest ones taken from her.

A total of 170 children passed through the institution in its six-year history. They attended the regular public school in the town of New Denver, while evening and weekends were spent in the dormitory. Parents were allowed to visit their children two Sundays per month but they had to procure special passes. In protest most chose to see their children through the fence outside.

Understandably, the New Denver project attracted considerable controversy. Civil libertarians protested the brutality of a government that would separate children from parents in this way. Journalists wrote numerous stories about it. One reported on the death of a Doukhobor woman found hanging from a beam in her home. A nearby note from her nine-year-old daughter at New Denver said: ‘Mommy, I am lonesome for you – come and visit me. I love you. Goodbye.’

The government also publicized its point of view. It stated that it was ‘the birthright and privilege of every Canadian child to receive an education’ and that because the Sons of Freedom refused to send their children to school, the government had no alternative. It pointed out also that of the 12,500 Doukhobors in the province only about 2500 belonged to the Sons of Freedom group and that of these only about forty-six families continued to refuse to send their children to school.

For their part, the Sons of Freedom lodged a complaint with the United Nations under the Genocide Convention, which condemns the forcible transfer of children from one group to another. They also, in 1957, challenged the government’s action in the courts, arguing that the question was one of freedom of religion. However, Judge Sidney Smith did not accept that argument. In what became known as the Perepolkin case, he said:

I, for my part, cannot feel that in this case there is any religious element involved in the true legal sense. It seems to me that religion is one thing: a code of ethics, another, a code of manners, another. To seek the exact dividing line between them is perhaps perilous but I absolutely reject the contention that any group of tenets that some sect decides to proclaim form part of its religion thereby necessarily takes on a religious colour. I turn to the affidavit relied on by the appellants:… the objection to public schools is that they interpret history so as to glorify, justify, and tolerate intentional taking of human and animal life or teach or suggest the usefulness of human institutions which have been or can be put to such purposes … that public schools ‘expose their children to materialistic influences and ideals’… that Doukhobors object to education on secular matters being separated from education on spiritual matters.

This clearly to my mind involves the claim that a religious sect may make rules for the conduct of any part of human activities and that these rules thereby become … part of that sect’s religion. This cannot be so

At one point during the six-year detention of children some thirty Doukhobor women went to see Dr Campbell, British Columbia’s deputy minister of Education. Campbell told them that if they would agree to send their children to school, they would be returned. ‘We can’t change the laws of the country,’ he explained. The Doukhobor women replied:

‘We can’t change the laws of God either,’ The other Doukhobors, even though they had often sought to dissociate themselves from the Sons of Freedom, were sympathetic to them in this situation. They, too, appealed to the government but without success. Eventually, in 1959, when the parents appeared before a judge in Nelson and promised that their children would attend the regular public school, the children were returned to their homes.

Visiting Day between a wire fence for a Sons of Freedom Doukhobor schoolgirl and her parents at New Denver, BC, circa 1950.

This Doukhobor encounter on education stands out for its length and its harshness. Essentially, the British Columbia government forced the Doukhobors to comply with its regulations. Some observers have argued that the government had no alternative, that the ongoing destruction of property, belonging either to the government or to other Doukhobors, reflected a way of life that, though religiously based, was prone to violence and simply could not be accommodated, and that it was natural to look to education – forced if necessary – as a long-term solution.

A closer analysis shows, however, that there could have been significant accommodations at a number of points. The government could have accepted the 1912 Doukhobor offer to take information about vital statistics from the Community’s record books and not exhumed bodies. It could have pursued the individual arsonists much more vigorously and focused less on those engaged in nude demonstrations. It could have removed military drills, flag-saluting ceremonies, and other activities from the schools much earlier. It could have incorporated Russian-language classes, Tolstoyan literature, Doukhobor music, and certain Doukhobor concerns about the teaching of history into the curriculum. It could have continued the lenient policy of Inspector A.E. Miller and not pressed for full attendance. It could have followed the moderate course recommended by Blackmore in 1912, by the Teachers’ Federation in 1939, and by the Hawthorn Committee in 1952. The government could have given the Doukhobors a broader educational liberty. Repeatedly, it chose not to do so. Ewart P. Reid wrote in 1932 that ‘much of the Doukhobor opposition to public schools arose not because of school per se … but because of the course content and methodology employed. Many of these difficulties arose because of the educational theories and practices … dividing children into grades, or using military drill … competitive tests and comparative grading … teaching history with military and political orientations, and refusing to allow the teaching of Russian did nothing to make schools more palatable, even to the Independent Doukhobors.’

The government’s policy of pressing ahead without making accommodations divided the Doukhobors, making their experience similar to that of the Mennonites. Some yielded, albeit reluctantly, while others became more determined in their resistance. Unlike the conservative Mennonites, the Doukhobors did not emigrate, though they did consider this option. Instead, they simply withheld their children from the public schools. Some engaged in nude demonstrations and a small number, probably no more than 200, destroyed buildings and other property. Regarding the underlying reasons for this behaviour, one analyst wrote in 1973 that ‘while Freedomite nude parades and destruction of Community property may have been attempts to convert Independents and Community members, incendiary attacks on schools and other non-Doukhobor property were clearly a response to attempts to enforce registration laws and compulsory education … They reacted … against what they viewed as an attempt to destroy their way of life and the faith of their children … also against the Independent and Community members’ acceptance of the forces of acculturation.’ According to this interpretation the violence was, at least to a large extent, the result of the provincial government’s refusal to accommodate a distinctive Doukhobor way of life.

In probing the reasons for the British Columbia government’s refusal to accommodate the Doukhobors there, certain similarities to developments affecting Mennonites and Doukhobors on the prairies emerge. Like the early settlers on the prairies there, the Doukhobors of British Columbia were appreciated for their contribution to the economy when they first arrived. But when the primary concern shifted from the frontier economy to social development there was no longer as much room for non-conforming groups. Also, as on the prairies, when the authorities pressed for social integration they defined religion in narrow terms and liberty on an individual basis. The narrow definition of religion in British Columbia is indicated most clearly in the Perepolkin case where it is suggested that the schooling of children is not a religious matter. The individualistic interpretation of liberty was indicated when the government defended the New Denver forced-schooling effort by saying, essentially, that the future liberty of the Doukhobor children required it.

Other explanatory factors lie in characteristics peculiar to British Columbia. Its educational structure was unusually centralized. Local school units had relatively little authority. Hence, developments in one locality could be used by politicians at the provincial level to project a ‘get-tough’ image. Also, the British Columbia educational system was unusually uniform. Unlike most other provinces, it had never had to accommodate a French-Catholic minority. Further, the approach of holding the Doukhobor Community liable for infractions committed by individuals was most unusual. It meant that law-enforcement agencies could impose fines and other punitive actions against the Community instead of looking for the guilty individuals. Community leaders were willing to help the police in identifying the individuals but the authorities showed little interest in their offers of assistance. The resulting atmosphere was poisonous, both among Doukhobors and between the government and those Doukhobors who wanted to be law abiding. If the Doukhobors could be treated as a community for purposes of liability, should they not also have been treated as a community for purposes of rights?

To say that the government of British Columbia could have been much more accommodating is not to say that accommodation would have solved all the problems. It must be conceded that there were some unusual and difficult elements among the Doukhobors. The actions by some Doukhobors to destroy the property of others, as a way of protesting against materialism and alleged departure from a true Doukhobor way of life, were a serious and persistent problem. It was probably necessary for the government to use some coercive measures in dealing with these developments but if it had granted the Doukhobors a broader educational liberty earlier on, the coercion required would probably have been much less.