Piers Island: The Doukhobor Period, 1932-1935

by A. Harold Skolrood

In 1928-1930, demonstrations and depredations on the part of the Sons of Freedom had reached a fevered pitch in Canada. Their growing activity provoked the Canadian government to punitive action. In 1931, it amended the Criminal Code making public nudity punishable by three years’ imprisonment. As a deterrent, however, the new penalty proved useless. The Freedomites were not ordinary peace-breakers; they were religious fanatics; and less than a year after the new law was passed, there were greater nude demonstrations than ever before. In May of 1932, mass parades led to the arrests of almost a thousand men, women and children in Nelson, British Columbia. Canadian authorities were then faced with the problem of finding penitentiary room for the convicted Sons of Freedom and making provision for their children. To this end, it was decided to establish a special penal colony for the Freedomites on Piers Island in the Strait of Georgia off Vancouver Island. The following is a detailed historical account of the internment of the Sons of Freedom on Piers Island from 1932 to 1935, reproduced by permission from “Piers Island: A Brief History of the Island and its People, 1886, 1993 (Lethbridge: Paramount Printers, 1995) by A. Harold Skolrood. While clearly written from the perspective of the Canadian Government, his account is not wholly unsympathetic to the plight of the Sons of Freedom, and provides fresh historical information on their incarceration. Postscript by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.

Arrest and Conviction

In the fall of 1932, the sound of mournful hymn singing began to punctuate the stillness of the evening on Piers Island. The disruption of island serenity came from Doukhobors confined in a federal penitentiary built on the island in the summer of 1932. Some five hundred and forty-six Sons of Freedom, Doukhobor men and women, had been convicted of nude parading in the Kootenay region of British Columbia. Under a 1931 amendment to the Criminal Code, nude parading had become an indictable offense with a mandatory three year sentence.

Sons of Freedom hold open air sobranya meeting, Nelson, British Columbia, 1928. British Columbia Archives C-01407.

Towards the end of April, 1932, (Sons of Freedom) Doukhobors converged on the Village of Thrums three miles east of Brilliant. There in an apple orchard, on a bright day in May, a hundred men and women disrobed. They were soon arrested and taken to Nelson to face charges. Shortly thereafter they were joined by an additional two hundred and fifty four charged for disrobing. Small clusters of twos and threes continued to be arrested until the barbed wire compound at Nelson was soon teaming with well over six hundred Doukhobors living in tents and temporary buildings. The Federal Department of Justice faced two problems with the apprehension and conviction of the Doukhobors: where should the adult convicts be confined and what should be done with their children? The British Columbia penitentiary at New Westminster was not equipped to handle an additional six hundred inmates. These people were not the common type of criminal since their only crime was appearing nude in a society that frowned upon nudity in public places. Although they pleaded guilty, many insisted they had only broken a man-made law not God’s law. As one elderly lady is reported to have said: She was not naked, she was married to Christ and had worn the bridal clothes.

While a permanent site was being sought, temporary accommodations were acquired at Oakalla Prison Farm in Burnaby. The Doukhobors were loaded into Canadian Pacific Railway coaches and taken the five hundred miles to Burnaby, there to be segregated into two wings of the prison. A few militant leaders were assigned to cells, but the majority slept on mattresses on the floor. The confinement at Oakalla provided a brief respite for the Department of Justice while it decided upon a more permanent location. A prison specifically built to serve the needs of this peculiar lot of convicts during their three-year incarceration was deemed to be the most judicious course of action.

The second problem confronting the Department of Justice was what to do with the Doukhobor children. They had paraded nude with their parents. One option open to the government was to consider them neglected children as defined under the Infants Act of the Province of British Columbia. They would then become wards of the B.C. Government under the direction of the Superintendent of Neglected Children. Upon their release from prison, parents could apply to the Court to be reinstated as guardians of their children. Parents could be required to give satisfactory evidence of their ability to resume parental responsibility.

Oakalla Prison Farm, Burnaby, British Columbia. Sons of Freedom were incarcerated here from April to August 1932 until remanded to Piers Island.

Instead the government chose to maintain the children on a non-ward basis, thus maintaining a legal responsibility between parents and their children. In other words, the government would take care of the children without formal intervention from the courts. This also avoided a court appearance for the children. However, this course of action was not without its difficulties. Since the children had not been legally assigned away from the parents, parental consent was needed before medical aid could be given to sick children. Initially many parents would not give their consent for medical treatment to be given to their sick children. Agreement was finally reached in this regard.

Arrangements for care of the children fell largely upon the shoulders of the Children’s Aid Society of Vancouver. Infants remained in jail with their mothers until they reached the age of six months. The Children’s Aid Society accepted responsibility for one hundred and nineteen children ranging in age from two months to twelve years. These children were placed in approved foster homes. The response to newspaper publicity was overwhelming, hundreds of families volunteered to take the children. In an effort to maintain family ties, brothers and sisters were placed together in a home. In general, placements in foster homes worked out well. It was necessary to change placements in only thirty instances. These changes were necessitated by the needs of some children to be with siblings, ill health of the foster mother or simply a request for a change from one foster mother to another.

Institutional care was arranged for a great many other children. Seventy-five children, ages three to nine years, were accommodated at the British Columbia Protestant Orphan’s Home in Victoria, the Loyal Protestant Home in New Westminster and the Alexandra Orphanage in Vancouver. In addition, the Provincial Industrial School for Girls took seventy-five girls and the Provincial Industrial School for Boys accepted nine-two boys. Children in these institutions ranged in age from seven to eighteen years. Private institutions received a weekly maintenance rate of $4.00 per week per child until June, 1933. It was then reduced to $3.50 per week or 51.42 cents per diem per child.

Hooper (Hooper, Ronald H.C. “Custodial Care of Doukhobor Children in British Columbia” in Hawthorn, Harry B. The Doukhobors of British Columbia (University of British Columbia, 1955)) applauds the welfare personnel of the federal government for their efforts to maintain family ties of the Doukhobor children in their custody. With advanced permission, family friends could visit the children, provided the parents of the children concerned agreed. In addition, arrangements were made to permit official delegates from the Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood to enter the institutions on the authority of the Superintendent of Neglected Children, provided the parents did not object.

Freedomite camp near Nelson, British Columbia, 1929.

Efforts were made to keep parents informed on the welfare of their children. An example cited by Hooper, showed that from September 18, 1932, to April 16, 1933, the seventy-five girls in the Provincial Industrial Schools sent out a total of 1,164 letters and received 900 in reply from friends and relatives. Authorities were taxed by the heavy burden of translation and censorship apart from providing information on children who were unable or unwilling to write. For a time after June 12, 1932, Doukhobors were instructed to use English to lessen the burden on translators; however, this did not last long, and on July 21, 1932, Doukhobors were again permitted to use Russian in their correspondence. After January, 1933, monthly progress reports on each child were sent to parents in prisons in addition to letters and reports of illness.

In his analysis of the Doukhobor experiment in handling the children of the convicts, Hooper concludes:

The institutions and agency were successful in countering many negativistic feelings that resulted from the separation of families, and in preventing the experience from becoming damaging to the children’s emotional development. However, it was not within the scope of their activities to attempt a re-education program, which, if successful would have resulted only in emotional conflicts when the families were reunited. The children would have been torn between their desire to conform to the wishes and beliefs of their parents and their newly acquired ideologies.

Selection of the Prison Site

Once the Doukhobors had been apprehended and convicted, what then was to be done with them? The 1932 arrest was the largest arrest that had ever been made in Canada. The existing space at both the Federal Penitentiary in New Westminster and the Provincial Oakalla Prison Farm was insufficient to accommodate such a large number of people.

Furthermore, the convicted group was almost equally divided between male and female. Initially some thought was given to separate locations.

A minimum security prison in an area relatively isolated seemed to be in keeping with the passive nature of the potential inmates. They were considered a pacifist, non-violent people in spite of their fire bombing tactics. Zubek (Zubek, John P. and Patricia A. Solberg, Doukhobors at War (Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1952)) commented:

Their errors are omissions, not commission. They fail to dress; they fail to send their children to school; they fail to register; but they have shown no physical violence.

Warden H. W. Cooper defined their passive resistance as:

a persistent and general policy of obstruction coupled with an obstinate and outwardly stolid refusal to do anything they were told to do.

It occurred to the Federal Department of Justice that an ideal minimum security prison could be built at minimum cost on one of the Gulf Islands in the coastal waters of British Columbia. Working in cooperation, The Federal Penitentiary Service, the Federal Department of Public Works and the Provincial Attorney General considered a number of possibilities. Among them, D’Arcy Island, half the size of Piers and a former leper colony, and Sidney Island were possible sites. Although D’Arcy Island, seven miles from Sidney town, had been declared safe by the federal health authorities there still lingered certain fears of the prevalence of the disease. It was heavily wooded and would have to be cleared and wells dug. A wharf was needed, and besides it had no telephone communication and little cultivated land. Sidney Island was rejected because of the expense required to prepare it and it had the potential for disagreement between private and public interest on the island.

After due consideration, Piers Island was selected because it offered a degree of isolation, yet was accessible to Vancouver Island, being three miles from Sidney, twenty-five miles from Victoria by boat and through Swartz Bay twenty-one miles by road. The shoreline on the southeast offered little obstacle for building a wharf. Furthermore some 40 acres had been cleared. There was ample water available, a proven fact from past occupancy and the intermittent farming that had occurred on the island. D’Arcy Island was to be held in abeyance for use at a later date should more space be required.

Acquisition by Expropriation

Negotiations between the Harvey family (then-owners of the island) and the Government of Canada failed to produce a satisfactory rental agreement. The government considered the asking fee excessive, and moved to acquire the island through expropriation proceedings. The federal government had the power under the 1927 Penitentiary Act, Chapter 24, Section 9, to expropriate for purposes of “a public work” of Canada a tract of land for use as a penitentiary. A proclamation to this effect was published in the Canada Gazette, September 24, 1933. When Piers Island was declared a penitentiary site, it was declared so within the Province of British Columbia under the authority of the Penitentiary Act.

This Act had some later significance in terms of the care and maintenance of the incarcerated Doukhobors’ children.

Piers Island was expropriated June 16, 1932, for a period of five years ending June 15, 1937. The penitentiary boundaries were defined as:

those certain parcels or tract of land situate, lying and being on the Province of British Columbia in the vicinity of Saanich Peninsula and known and described as Piers Island and those islands adjacent thereto, namely, Hood Island, Arbutus Island, Spit Island, Shute Reef and Peck Reef.

The expropriation order granted the federal government the right to cut and use the trees for maintenance of the penitentiary. At the expiration of the lease, the government would remove from the island buildings and other “erections and fixtures” as part of the penitentiary. The annual rental fee was fixed by the government at $420. The Exchequer Court of Canada did not concur and increased the fee to $1,400 per annum to a total of $7,000. Payment was made in two installments each year, before June 16th and December 16th, in the amount of $700 each plus 5% interest on each installment.

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.

At the time of expropriation, the market value of the 141.7 ha (241 acre) island was set at $50,000. Two parcels of land, 14.9-16.2 ha (35-40 acres) in total had been cleared, but one parcel was rapidly reverting to its natural state, while approximately thirty-five acres had been cultivated for many years, some of which was subsequently cultivated by the penitentiary authorities.

Dissatisfied with the deal imposed on them by the federal government, the Harvey estate appealed their case to the Supreme Court of Canada which began hearing on the case April 24, 1934. Cornelius Hawkins O’Halloran, who had been appointed a trustee of the Harvey Trust on July 27, 1928, acted on behalf of the Harvey interests.

The Defendant (O’Halloran) presented a well documented case in support of his claim for greater compensation for the use of the island by the Federal Government. Witnesses for both sides were queried in a mild and gentle manner on the past, present and future of Piers Island in terms of its potential with respect to:

the nature of the soil;
the vegetation – types of trees, the numbers cut and where;
the suitability of mooring bays;
the industries such as farming and logging;
the future of the island as a game reserve and as recreational property.

The appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada was lost. The Judgment of the Exchequer Court of Canada was upheld. In his summary statement at the end of the 255 page Proceedings document, which reads like a description of a cricket match in its detail, the Chief Justice reviewed each argument of the Defendant and offered an explanation for his refutation of each. He concluded that although the Defendant’s claims for compensation appear “unduly extravagant and excessive” the Defendant should be reimbursed for his court costs.

The Compounds

Any work incentive program during the depths of the Depression that created useful work for some of the unemployed was welcomed. CM Dickie, M.P. for Nanaimo and the Islands, quickly announced the bulk of the labour force for the prison including tradesmen, would come from his riding and the contiguous areas of Oak Bay and Saanich. Hundreds of applications were received for work on the site and for positions as guards. The situation was rife for political favoritism and patronage. One official, W. O. Wallace, stated:

“that the fact of a man not belonging to the political party of which I am an adherent, shall not debar him from securing employment on the undertaking.”

Doukhobor penitentiary at Piers Island, British Columbia, 1934.  Note the signage on the supply wharf adjacent to the prison site. BC Archives G-00606.

Thirty-five percent of the 40-50 jobs were given to unemployed returned soldiers. The rate of pay was 40 cents per hour with a board allowance of $22 per month. In keeping with the frugality dictated by economic stringency of the day, the federal government did not intend, so it said, to be extravagant in providing the inmates at Piers with luxurious accommodation in which to languish away their time. W.C. Fatt, Acting Superintendent of Penitentiaries, advised Warden H.W. Cooper:

that no extravagance whatever must be exercised in the erection of shelters and quarters on Piers Island.

Authorization for construction was given on June 15, 1932, with building to start June 28th. T.W. Fuller was the architect, J. G. Drinkwater the engineer, and F. N. Ross the construction foreman. By November, when the first contingent of male prisoners arrived aboard the S. S. Princess Mary, the Department of Public Works had hammered together some six hundred fifty thousand feet of rough ship lap and tar paper which they obtained from Sidney Mills Limited, into sixteen buildings, eight of which were dormitories, four in each compound. Located on ten acres in the northwest corner of the island, the buildings were on foundation of wooden trestles set on concrete footings and were heated by wood burning stoves. Heated tanks provided hot water for showers and tubs. Building and yards were lit with naphtha mantle lamps.

Womens’ Compound (left facing south), Piers Island Penitentiary. Courtesy Steve Lapshinoff Collection.

The two almost identical compounds were erected 91.5 M (300 ft.) apart. Besides the dormitories, each compound contained store rooms, guardrooms and mess, offices, kitchen and dining room, hospital ward, laundry, and bathing room. A root house was located under dormitory No. 1 in the men’s compound. The men’s compound was a 183 M (600 ft.) square, while the women’s compound enclosure measured 109.8 M (360 ft.) x 155.4 M (444 ft.). A 4.25 M (14 ft.) barbed wire fence, with a three strand 45.7 cm. (18 in.) apron along the top, encircled each compound. Entrance to each compound was through a wooden gate reinforced with steel mesh, wide enough for a motor truck to enter, and was opened by a lever which a guard operated from a platform above. The officer’s quarters were in a building north of the men’s compound and the matron’s quarters were likewise located south of the women’s compound. Wooden sidewalks connected the various buildings.

Dormitory wings led off a single corridor so that one guard was able to patrol an entire dormitory. The men slept on double tiered bunk beds and the women on single cots. Both men and women were grouped according to age and assigned to specific dormitories.

Fresh water from as many as eight wells supplied the penitentiary. Gasoline driven pumps were used to fill the 113,650 litres (25,000 gallons) stave tank which provided pressure for the water system. Regular reports from the Superintendent of Penitentiaries indicated an adequate supply of fresh water.

Womens’ Compound (right facing south), Piers Island Penitentiary. Courtesy Steve Lapshinoff Collection.

Dormitories were equipped with flush toilets that utilized sea water. Because of the corrosive nature of sea water, the short period of time the penitentiary was expected to be in operation, and the extra expense to install, septic tanks seemed “unjustifiable at this time”. Consequently, raw sewage went directly into ceramic clay tile lines. The pressure tank was filled twice daily with sea water. Two separate sewer systems, the men’s – known as the western system – and the women’s – the eastern system – discharged their putrid effluence into separate bays below the low water mark. Each sewer outlet terminated in 91.5 M (300 ft.) of extra heavy 20.32 cm. (8 inch) cast iron pipe and two cast iron 45 degree elbows. They were anchored to the rocks. Regular inspection of the beaches did not always report positive results. Tidal action often brought back to the beach excreta from the sewer outlets. Engineer reports frequently noted the objectionable nature of sewer outlets near the shoreline. Depending upon the direction of the wind, at low tide the malodorous condition of the beach was something less than fragrant.

A supply route to the off-island communities was via 106.7 M. (350 ft.) walkway that led from the prison site to a 12.2 M (40 ft.) x 18.3 M (60 ft.) wharf built by the James MacDonald Construction Company for a low bid of $4217.28. Additional floats were installed for smaller craft. The M.V. Narsapur was the service boat to the penitentiary. The S.S. Princess Mary also made regular stops at the wharf as did the coastal ferry, Cy Peck, which ran between Swartz Bay and Fulford Harbor. Piling from that wharf still exist today.

Easily discernible signs, 3.6 M. (12 ft.) x 1.8 M (6 ft.) warned passersby against trespassing or mooring within 91.5 M (300 ft.) of the shore. The whole prison was under 24 hour surveillance, which meant that if the Doukhobors had any aspirations to escape, they probably would not have been able to get out of the enclosure, let alone off the island.

“For Doukhobors”; showing entrance wharf to Piers Island Penitentiary. Sketch by Lindley Crease, August 27, 1933. BC Archives G-00606.

Doukhobors As Prisoners

Who were the prisoners? How did they behave in prison? The Depression and their gradual estrangement from the support of the larger Doukhobor community weakened their economic power and moved many Sons of Freedom Doukhobors close to destitution. While many were landless, having abandoned their farms, others arrived in prison with varying sums of money sewn within their clothing.

Records indicate that the number in prison at any one time varied. Of the 570 confined in 1933, 231 were born in Russia. The prison population on Piers Island included husbands, wives, parents and grandparents bonded together by a set of religious beliefs. Never before had prison officials in Canada had such a diversified group of prisoners. Chart I shows a breakdown according to age. Chart II indicates the conjugal state and sex of the prisoners.

Chart I: Ages of Prisoners in Custody at Piers Island
Fiscal Year Under 20 20-30 30-40 40-50 50-60 Over 60 Total
1933 31 168 97 92 66 116 570
1934 29 153 90 88 63 108 531

Canada Yearbook, 1933, p. 1035

Chart II: Conjugal State and Sex of Prisoners at Piers Island
Fiscal Year Single Married Widowed Divorced Total Male Female
1933 88 435 43 4 570 292 278
1934 78 409 40 4 531 264 267

Canada Yearbook, 1933, p. 1035

The first group of 20 male prisoners arrived August 11, 1932. Successive groups in allotments of 30 arrived when the construction of facilities permitted their reception and accommodation. By December 22nd a total of 299 male prisoners had arrived.

The first female group of 48 arrived on a cold, foggy, wet November 7th and continued to arrive in groups varying from 27 to 48 until December 27th for a total of 280, making a grand total of 579 prisoners.

Upon their arrival, the Warden explained to the prisoners that prison life demanded prisoners perform various tasks. Prisoners were divided into groups or “gangs” of fifteen to twenty for kitchen work, general rough work and to do any specific tasks that might emerge. Apart from the cooking and handling of meat, which was done by a Chinese cook and his mess boy, the Doukhobors prepared meals from the kitchen stores. Kitchen gangs were rotated every fourteen days in the male prison and every four days in the female prison. General rough work included cutting and bringing in the wood from a plentiful supply available. Stores that arrived regularly at the wharf had to be transported to the kitchen and shore house.

Mens’ Compound (left facing south), Piers Island Penitentiary. Courtesy Steve Lapshinoff Collection.

When they arrived at the prison the Doukhobors were expected to live by the cardinal principle, “all for one and one for all.” From the outset they began open defiance of authority. They vowed “never to lift hand or foot to perform any work throughout their period of incarceration. They argued that they had been brought there against their will by the government and would do no work whatever until the government gave them ‘freedom’, which to them “meant free land without taxation and without responsibility or obedience to any form of government.”

It was not long before the first confrontation occurred and the “cold war” began. They refused to bring in any wood. Night after night they walked up and down the dormitories swinging their arms to keep warm, but the guards refused to move. When the cold had reached an unbearable point one young Doukhobor went out and brought in an armful of chopped wood. Capitulation from the rest soon followed and the dormitories were quickly heated.

The Doukhobor practice of non-cooperation or passive resistance se presented a challenge to prison officials. The prevailing practice of the day in a penitentiary where people were sent for punishment, not rehabilitation, was to use physical coercion to enforce obedience and compliance with prison rules. A number of punishments were considered applicable to the situation, but few were actually carried out. Punishments authorized by the penitentiary regulations were of no avail. It was useless to deprive prisoners of smoking, if they didn’t smoke. A restrictive diet had little effect on people who voluntarily restricted their diet to vegetables. Among the punishments tried when prisoners refused to submit to prison rules were: bread and water diet, isolation, remission forfeited, infliction of the paddle, loss of privilege, shackled, probation extended, reprimand, warnings and change of work. One penitentiary report indicated that for the year 1933-34, out of a total prison population of 531, 274 received punishment. No women in that year received any punishment. The hunger strike was a frequent protest technique, even though they never completely fasted, but would take oatmeal and water and on occasion would take only water. When the latter was threatened to be denied, they would stop the hunger strike as promptly as they had started.

Mens’ Compound (right facing south), Piers Island Penitentiary. Courtesy Steve Lapshinoff Collection.

Since many of the standard authorized punishments were inappropriate for this non-violent, non-participating group of prisoners, the Warden had to resort to his own ingenuity in getting compliance from the prisoners. He reasoned that because the imprisoned Doukhobors felt somewhat akin to earlier persecuted Christians in their perceived martyrdom, they would be disappointed in not receiving the anticipated physical abuse. He would use the Doukhobors’ own weapon of “passive resistance and quiet obstruction” against them. He instructed his staff to ignore outbursts of disobedient behavior, and not to lay a hand on them. No physical coercion would be used at any time and he warned that any guard who struck a prisoner would be dismissed immediately.

The women also engaged in “passive resistance” to the normal process of prison living. At first they refused to wash their clothes in the washroom, but when assured that it was their privilege to remain dirty, their traditional Doukhobor practice of cleanliness overcame their obstinacy. It wasn’t long before their dormitories were competing with one another for exclusive use of the washroom. One day per week was allotted each dormitory for doing laundry.

Disrobing within the prison was not a common practice of protest. However, on one occasion, several older women disrobed. As dinner time approached, a frustrated matron rushed into the Warden’s office seeking advice as to what should be done to prevent them from appearing nude at the dinner table. The Warden’s reply was “let them,” since they were trying a number of socially unacceptable techniques in prison. That evening a dozen or so were nude, while the rest remained dressed. The staff went about their business in a nonchalant manner. The anticipated order to dress did not come; instead the staff acted as though nothing unusual was happening. Dressed and undressed Doukhobor women stonily ate their meal. No sympathy stripping occurred and the next morning all were dressed. Subsequently some individual attempts were tried, but they too were ignored and the practice ceased entirely. One observer noted that an infestation of yellow jacket wasps probably was the major deterrent to disrobing, at least in the summer.

Other techniques employed by female prisoners to annoy their matrons included screaming in unison, refusing to stand still while the count was being taken, refusing to scrub the floors of their dining hall and dormitories, tearing numbers off their clothing and refusing to sew them on again. Like their male counterparts, the female prisoners would stop a protest as abruptly as they started it. A persistent activity among both male and female prisoners was singing. Both groups sang over their laundry tubs and while doing their handicrafts and other work. At times they sounded content and happy, other times mournful wails reached banshee proportions when mothers expressed a longing for their children. Often the total prison population would join the chorus of voices and when they reached their crescendo, their baleful singing could be heard on Knapp and neighboring islands. When aided by the wind, they could be heard as far away as Sidney and various communities on Vancouver Island.

Group of Sons of Freedom Doukhobor women at Nelson Gaol await departure to Piers Island, September, 1932. Courtesy Steve Lapshinoff Collection.

Singing was a means of communication between the men’s and women’s compound. Since no prison rules existed against singing, a group in either compound might begin to chant in their native Russian. Others in both compounds would join the chorus. After a few lines, they would substitute for the original word, parodies improvised for the occasion and without missing a note, they would switch from item to item conveying any news that had reached them to husbands, wives, relatives and friends. The recipients in turn would answer with advice, consolation or more news. Sometimes the total group would form a mass chorus ridiculing their guards and matrons or complaining about their treatment and inevitable persecution by the government and its agents. What amazed the guards was the way their weird songs were often sung with rich voices in perfect harmony.

Their singing would penetrate the most obscure corner of the island frustrating the staff. Ignoring them seemed to be useless, but only the continued insistence of the Warden kept the guards and matrons from interfering. The staff had no choice but to be patient and tolerate it.

Prison routine was the same in both compounds. The day began a 6:30 a.m. when the “kitchen gang” was led into the kitchen to prepare breakfast. As the Doukhobors were vegetarians, vegetables were central to each meal. Borsch made from uncooked rolled oats, mixed with beet and shredded cabbage was a popular dish even for breakfast. Vegetable were eaten either cooked or raw. Cabbage, carrots, onions and potatoe along with a variety of dried fruits, apples, prunes, apricots and raisin produced solid fare each day.

The male prisoners cultivated a vegetable garden and engaged in blacksmithing, shoe making and repair, carpentry, book and magazine binding. They also made tables and benches, wove baskets and made wooden knives and forks and ornaments. The women engaged in making dresses, night gowns, pants, petticoats, pillow slips, shawls and shirt male and female slippers, socks (male), and stockings (female). The would often decorate their drab prison garb with frills made from unravelling pieces of left over cloth, carefully tying the ends together to make thread, then crocheting this thread into lace collars and cuffs. Knitting needles were made from wire and string from unraveled flour sacks, salvaged from the kitchen. They would knit socks and mitts for themselves and the male prisoners. Some revenue was realized from such articles as baskets, magazine stands and walking canes.

Prison officials were cognizant of maintaining good sanitary conditions in prison. Dr. Watson from Kings Daughters’ Hospital in Duncan paid routine weekly visits. He regularly inspected all facilities that included dormitories, laundry, washrooms and dining halls for both staff and prisoners, and filed a written report. In addition he saw individuals requiring particular medical attention.

Sons of Freedom Doukhobor girls in Nelson awaiting relocation, May 1932. Simon Fraser University Doukhobor Collection, E.H. Patterson Materials.

Although Doukhobors were opposed to doctors and medicine, many men and women clambered to stand in the medical parade, perhaps for no other reason than for something to do. Diagnosis was difficult as medical histories were hard to obtain because the patients were more interested in questioning the doctor about their ailments, than they were in divulging their medical history. They attributed most of their current ailments to their imprisonment and harsh persecution. Prisoners requiring hospital treatment were accommodated at the Kings Daughters’ Hospital in Duncan, B. C. Three mothers delivered healthy babies in the Duncan hospital. After six months the children were placed in foster homes by the Vancouver Children’s Aid Society. Speculation abounds as to how they became pregnant while in a segregated prison, but the facts nullify the speculation as the three were pregnant when they entered prison. Contact with the men was limited to conversation during one half hour visitation period Sunday afternoon and that was from behind a short fence, three feet back from the main fence of the female prisoner compound against which the women stood while a guard strolled back and forth between them.

Throughout their period of confinement they continued to resist authority and argued over small details, but as prison routine became established, their behavior was less erratic and volatile, still the least provocation could produce a work stoppage or a hunger strike. Notwithstanding, the Superintendent of Penitentiaries reported in his Annual Report, March 1934,

that a marked change is noticeable in the attitude of these convicts. There are indications of a slight change in their habits of life, and their resistance to rules and regulations has been partially overcome.

Release from Prison

Although the Doukhobors had been sentenced to three years, none actually served the full time. The Depression had placed a drain on government expenditures; consequently, any cost savings that could be effected were utilized, with the result being the authorities were willing to release prisoners before their sentences had expired. Releases were done on a flexible basis beginning in the first summer of confinement when two pregnant women were released. Both objected to leaving.

They insisted they had been sentenced to three years like the rest of their “brothers and sisters” and they wished to stay with them. Cooperative prisoners received six days “time off per month. Some were released early because they appeared to be good prospects to return to normal living. Initially inmates were released in ones, two, and from time to time, threes. Released groups increased in size as June 1935 approached. By the time the prison closed in June 1935, about thirty men were left to be transferred to the New Westminster penitentiary for completion of their sentences.

Sons of Freedom Doukhobor children in Nelson awaiting relocation, May 1932. Simon Fraser University Doukhobor Collection, E.H. Patterson Materials.

Reunion with their children was for many a heart wrenching experience. Children had grown and changed because of the environment they had lived in for some time, and parents likewise had aged and changed. Problems of recognition and verification produced some uneasy moments for both children and parents.

The supervision of the reunion of families was done by a government appointed committee consisting of John Sherbin(in), representing the Doukhobors, F.F. Payne, publisher of the Nelson Daily News, representing the public and David Brankin, Superintendent of the Provincial Industrial School for Boys, Port Coquitlam, representing the government.

Reaction to their confinement experience varied. A rather humorous incident occurred when a group of Doukhobors were waiting, unguarded, for transportation back to the mainland.

He was a tall man, six feet six inches, ‘two ax handles across the shoulders and with the stolidity of Paul Bunyan’s ox Babe. In response to a question as to how he had been treated in prison, and had there been any brutality, the big Doukhobor smiled shyly and said, ‘No Doukhobor had tried to escape. What was the use?’ And as for brutality — and he leaned over and reached out, grabbing a five foot ten inch man nearby. This man was no weakling. The big Doukhobor held his victim by the back of the collar, slowly raised him off the ground, and with one hand held him wiggling there, and with a sweet smile said, ‘How could we rebel? We had men like this for our guards.’ The contempt in his voice, and the sarcasm in his laughter after dropping the guard was biting, onlookers tell.

The penal authorities had no plans for rehabilitation after the inmates were released. Rehabilitation expenses were kept to a minimum: prisoners were given a complete outfit of clothing, a railway ticket home and ten dollars in pocket money. Aside from these bare necessities, the ex-prisoners were destitute. They had nothing to go home to as they owned no property and what they had prior to their incarceration, including their homes, had been taken over by their community.

Sons of Freedom Doukhobor girls at Industrial School in Victoria, September, 1932. Courtesy Steve Lapshinoff Collection.

The Federal Government, for its part, felt it had completed its work. The Doukhobors had been punished and it was up to them to return to a normal life as best they could. In response to a question from M.P. Thomas Reid of New Westminster as to what action the federal government planned to take regarding the release of prisoners from Piers Island, the Minister of Justice, the Honorable Hugh Guthrie, stated that apart from transportation and $10.00, the federal government had no further responsibility. He said,

the hope is now that having served their prison terms, they may not be in future guilty of the offenses of which they were formerly guilty and for which they had served their time.

When the Sons of Freedom Doukhobors were released, other Doukhobor communities refused to have anything to do with them. They would take the children, but not the adults. They were viewed as ex-convicts, who in the eyes of Doukhobor leader, Peter Verigin, Jr., had not yet completed their full sentence, and were still the responsibility of the government.

Those originally from the Kootenay and Slocan valleys went to Krestova and attempted to begin a new life on arid and unproductive soil. Others originally from the Kettle Valley, were disembarked at Grand Forks and escorted by police to some government owned wasteland overlooking the Kettle River, where they built shacks and prepared geometrically shaped gardens. Their community beside the Great Northern Railway tracks became known as Gilpin.

The Doukhobor episode was at the height of the Depression. The government’s hurried disposal of the “Doukhobor” issue was understandable as it increasingly came under criticism for its “million dollar Doukhobor policy’. For example, it was criticized for spending 57 cents a day or $17.50 per month to support Doukhobor children while unemployed parents in society at large received $2.50 per month for child support. The total cost was estimated at 3 million dollars.

Was the cost worth what was accomplished? Did the government have any alternatives in dealing with a fanatical group such as the Sons of Freedom Doukhobors, whose initial crime was directed against other Doukhobors? It has been suggested by Woodcock and Avakumovic in their book entitled, The Doukhobors that:

“The expedient of Piers Island was successful as a means of temporarily removing the Sons of Freedom from the environment of the Kootenays, where their activities had further angered their neighbors and provoked new threats of vigilante action, but their attitudes were unchanged, in fact, their resolve to disobey the state was enhanced by a consciousness of martyrdom achieved at comparatively little personal discomfort, and a further chapter of grievance was added to the boring book of their complaints against Canadian society.”

The wish expressed by Justice Minister Hugh Guthrie failed to become a reality in subsequent years. In 1950, the federal government again built a special prison at Agassiz, B. C. to accommodate some four hundred Sons of Freedom Doukhobors, mostly men. The relatively few women involved were sent to the Federal penitentiary at Kingston, Ontario. In more recent times, a reduction in their destructive and demonstrative activities along with less media coverage has made the public less aware of them, but conflict among rival groups still remains volatile.

Sons of Freedom Doukhobor boys at Industrial School in Victoria, September, 1932. Courtesy Steve Lapshinoff Collection.


A staff list for August 10, 1933, showed a total of 59 staff members in charge of a prison population of 556. The majority of the guards, matrons, and other personnel hired for prison duty were recruited on Vancouver Island for a term of employment lasting the duration of the prison sentence given to the Doukhobors. Eight officers from New Westminster Penitentiary were transferred to Piers Island. Along with assistance from a number of R.C.M.P. officers, they established the prison. The preliminary training of staff detailed the job requirements and provided information on the peculiar nature of the prisoners. After one month probation, a new recruit was given a uniform of soft blue cloth. The winter uniform was made of wool. Beyond that, it was on the job training. The military routine used to organize and handle staff demanded rigorous physical and mental discipline which at times was strict to the point of severity and had to be executed fairly. Mental discipline was the only weapon against boredom. It, along with great patience, did not prevent the large turnover of staff.

Warden H. W. Cooper and his administrative staff at the New Westminster Penitentiary were responsible for the administration of the Piers Island Prison. Deputy Warden was L. Goss until December 27, 1933, when he was relieved by Deputy Warden I. A. Poirier, from the St. Vincent de Paul Penitentiary. Ill health soon forced Poirier to relinquish the post on March 12, 1934, then, Deputy Warden L. Goss again assumed responsibility for the prison.

The work day was divided into two shifts: 7:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m and 6:00 p.m to 7:00 a.m. Officers were assigned to various dormitories and work places such as kitchen, laundry, dormitory and so forth. Guards and matrons ate in the same building, but at different tables. Initially guards received four days off a month, but this was later changed to one day a week. They went off duty in the evening and returned for work the next evening. Off duty staff left the island. Guards received a salary of $90 per month along with daily board and clothing.

Sons of Freedom Doukhobor boys at Industrial School in Victoria, September, 1932. Courtesy Steve Lapshinoff Collection.

Since a policy of no physical force was to be used, guards and matrons had to exhibit considerable patience in dealing with the idiosyncratic behaviour of their prisoners. This could take a variety of forms in the course of a day, including sudden outbursts of shouting, singing, work slow down and work stoppage, argumentation or fasting. But, despite these annoyances, there were amusing incidents, which for the guards, at least, broke the monotony and injected a little levity into an otherwise boring situation.

According to a former guard, staff did learn to speak some colloquial Doukhobor language. One word coined by the guards to refer to the prisoners was “Nits”, the English version of the Russian word “Nyet” meaning “No” – a word that was central to Doukhobor behaviour.

Once the sentence had been served and prisoners discharged, the guards and matrons were discharged. For a couple of years, at least, work at the penitentiary did allow some people a departure from the ranks of the unemployed for a short time during the depression.

Removal of Buildings

The leasehold interest the federal government acquired June 16, 1932, of Piers Island was for a period of five years terminating June 15, 1937. Since the last contingent of prisoners left at the end of March, 1935, the federal government no longer had a use for the island property. Negotiations were conducted with Mr. Robert D. Harvey for the return of the property to the Harvey estate. He was invited to inspect the island and submit a statement of compensation under the terms of the original contract. The federal government had its own evaluation done of the facilities and equipment. Its capital expenditure had been $108,983.47, but a report from the Chief Engineer, W.S. Lawson, estimated the value of salvageable materials to be $16,600, which penitentiary officials felt was far in excess of any damage done by constructing roads, cutting trees and piling gravel on cleared portions of the island.

Piers Island as it appears today. Note the cleared area in the northwest corner of the island is the site of the former penitentiary.

The buildings were not worth the expense to move them anywhere, but if left would be an expense to the owner and detriment to the property,

One suggestion, that if the site was left intact, it would make a more than adequately equipped summer camp resort for such groups as the Y.W.C.A., Y.M.C.A., Boy Scouts and Girl Guides or perhaps even a summer hotel.

A settlement was reached with the Harvey estate that included the balance of rental due under the terms of the original agreement, compensation for trees cut including the 270 recorded in the “tree book” and those cut haphazardly and not recorded and provincial taxes payable once the federal government relinquished its control of the island.

The restoration agreement left intact the wharf and landing and two fully serviced buildings, H-l (officers’ building) and H-2 (matrons’ building). All other buildings were to be removed, wells capped, and equipment sent by scow at a cost of $250 to the New Westminster Penitentiary for use or storage.

Until the demolition work and restoration was completed, a caretaking staff of nine was left on the island to protect the property against fire or depredations by any persons. The staff included “Acting Deputy Warden, B.S. MacDonald, an acting engineer, a clerk, storekeeper, a guard in charge of a team of horses, an engineer with license to navigate the “M.V. Narsapur”, an assistant for the “M.V. Narsapur”, and one cook. The “M.V. Narsapur”, like the tons of other salvageable material from the Piers Island prison, was taken to the New Westminster penitentiary for disposal. The remaining stable was eventually dismantled and the lumber used by some of the first cottage like H. K. Gann, who built his guest cottage out of it.


According to the official government account outlined above, the Piers Island Penitentiary warden instructed his staff not to use physical force on the Doukhobors prisoners. However, it is important to note that surviving Doukhobor accounts allege gross abuses of the Piers Island prisoners.

For example, in an open letter published by the Fraternal Council of the Union of Christian Communities & Brotherhood of Reformed Doukhobors in 1953 (Perepelkin, Hadikin, and Jmaeiff 1953, 12-15), it is alleged that nursing mothers interned at Piers Island had their babies taken away from them to be cared for by prison staff. Less than two weeks later, when the parents were allowed to see the babies, they appeared undernourished and neglected. Two or three days later, prison officials informed the parents that three of the babies had died. They were the children of Mr. and Mrs. Fred Babakaeff, Mr. and Mrs. Fred Shlakoff and Mr. and Mrs. Fred Postnikoff. The parents blamed the government for the death of the babies.

Additional oral accounts allege that the male Doukhobor prisoners were physically beaten by the Piers Island Penitentiary staff while the children of the Doukhobor prisoners placed in the Industrial Schools were abused and mistreated – JJK.

View a list of Sons of Freedom interned at Piers Island Penitentiary. This index contains the surname, name, sex, age, place of arrest, remand prison, place of conviction and comments for each of 556 Sons of Freedom Doukhobors incarcerated at Piers Island Penitentiary, British Columbia between 1932-1935.  View a list of 357 Sons of Freedom children, whose parents were interned at Piers Island Penitentiary, British Columbia, and who were placed by the government with Independent and Community Doukhobor families between 1933 and 1935 for foster care.

Read an account of a 2008 excursion to Piers Island by Dr. Gunter Schaarschmid  of the University of Victoria to visit some of the physical features left from the penitentiary camp site, including photos.

About this Book

Piers Island, A Brief History of the Island and its People, 1886-1993 by A. Harold Skolrood (1928-2003) is a 150-page soft-cover book published by Paramount Printers (ISBN 0-9680476-0-2).  A comprehensive local history book about Piers Island, British Columbia, including detailed information regarding its: location and nature; early settlement; the Doukhobor period, 1932-1935; the cottage era; transportation and communication; governance; the Piers Island fire department; the Piers Island water system; island living; maps and more. For more information or to order copies of this informative book, contact the late author’s representatives at: hiskol@shaw.ca.