In 1929, nine year old Elizabeth P. Maloff belonged to a family of Independent Doukhobors living in Thrums, British Columbia. They were sympathetic to the views of the Svobodniki (“Freedomite” or “Sons of Freedom”) Doukhobors who lived in a squatter camp on the edge of their settlement. When her family joined one of their mass protests against militarism and capitalism, they were swept up in a series of sensational events that would forever change their lives. They marched to South Slocan, where a number of protestors were arrested for indecent exposure and sentenced to Oakalla prison. The rest marched on to Nelson, where they set up a makeshift camp on the city outskirts. When the protestors refused police orders to disperse, the leaders, including Elizabeth’s father, were arrested for obstruction of justice and sentenced to Oakalla prison. The remaining protestors, including Elizabeth, her mother and siblings, were held, without arrest, in Nelson provincial prison, then transported to Porto Rico, an isolated, abandoned, barely habitable logging camp, where they were forcibly confined, without trial, until the following year. Eighty years later, Elizabeth shared these events with her family for the first time. Her story, recorded by her daughter Vera, recounts the reasons for the protests, now blurred by the passage of time, and the little-known, largely forgotten internment at Porto Rico. Reproduced by permission of the author. Foreword and Afterword by Jonathan J. Kalmakoff.
It all started in 1929 in Thrums where I live. The old Svobodniki Doukhobors lived here behind George Popoff’s place in a community against the mountain. That summer, my six year old brother and I, then nine, sat on our front porch and watched as the Svobodniki walked along the road in Thrums with banners declaring “Land should not be bought or sold. Land belongs to God alone.” “People must not pay taxes for land. Taxes support war.” I could feel their energy and fervour. They were inspired and joyous to be speaking out about their beliefs. There was such a commotion all along the road. My parents sympathized and didn’t pay their taxes either, and so our land was taken away. Like the Svobodniki, my parents were also against an education that promoted militarism and capitalism.
Freedomite camp on the outskirts of Nelson, British Columbia to protest the arrest and jailing of 112 of their brethren for indecent exposure, September 1929. Photo courtesy Koozma J. Tarasoff Collection.
To begin with I really wanted to go to school. The school was right here, almost in our front yard and everyone walked by on their way to school. All my playmates went and I dreamt of going to school, I was so enthusiastic, but my parents said that school taught about war. The students had to sing for the king and queen, and they said that is why we had all these wars. So mother explained, “Leeza, you can learn with your brother at home. I’ll teach you. We have some school books with lots of stories. ” I started to read and write, and I still remember that funny story, The Little Red Hen, about the chicken that did all the work and there was no help from anybody. Mother said that the chicken was like her. She was trying to wake us up so we would help her more. Mom was a good teacher. She was strict with us. Dad said that mom would make a very good nurse or a teacher, but he didn’t have those capabilities. But then we had so many visitors. People came to ask Dad for help writing letters and making signs. The old Svobodniki said that all books needed to be burnt because they were not from God but written by man. Dad loved books and had quite a collection, so he was always afraid, especially when Nastya Zarubina came around, that they would burn his books. When those Svobodniki came around, dad didn’t have the heart to send them away, but first he made sure he hid all the books. So it didn’t quite turn out; it was hard to learn with so much disturbance all the time. I had to understand these things.
You know, we had just started to live a little better. Dad worked in the Okanagan in the spring and made a little money. Mother would write letters to dad, a quick letter so that dad would feel better. She would say that she was managing and all the children were okay. I would run to the post office. Charlie Johnson owned the Thrums store and post office and he would already be carrying mail to the train station. He said, “You run quickly and get a stamp from the post office and then catch up to me. You are a fast runner.” His wife would sell me the stamp – three cents for a stamp, imagine all that trouble just for three cents, and then I would run after Mr. Johnson. Charlie Johnson was a returned soldier from World War I. His feet were damaged in the war so he limped quite badly. He said that he could have bought all the land in Thrums for taxes when people weren’t paying, but he didn’t because he understood what the rallies and protests were about. He supported them and gave people credit when they didn’t have any money for groceries. Each person paid him back, he said.
Everyone gathered to protest on the old road in South Slocan. There was a prophecy that a big war was coming and there was a saying, “You have to feed the dogs before you go hunting, so that they will follow you.” People believed that this meant they had to let the government know that Doukhobours would not participate in any war effort – they wouldn’t pay taxes that go toward war or teach their children about patriotism and fighting for one’s country. My family was there – my mom, dad, grandfather, grandmother, my brother Pete, and the twins, Luba and John, who were just a year old. I was nine years old. There were many other families too. Right away, though, the police came with trucks and busses and arrested many men and women, including dad and grandfather. We were left with mom and there were other kids with their moms. We didn’t know what to do. We were scared.
Then a strong group of Doukhobor supporters joined us. A friend of mine, Varyusha came. Her family had driven from Grand Forks and stayed in our house in Thrums on their way. It was like that then, friends would drop in, eat, stay overnight without question. Everyone was like family. When they arrived in South Slocan there was such jubilation. We had support and were energized. Mom was too, she was full of inspiration. She said we were doing the right thing, supporting all those taken away to prison. We started on a march, a pokhod [“campaign”] to Nelson to protest the jailing. On the way, we stayed overnight in a barn in Bonnington. I was so tired that I didn’t even notice where I slept. When I woke up I saw that I had been sleeping on rocks.
We got to Nelson the next day. I wanted to see my dad and grandfather, but the police herded us toward the zhuzhlitsa, a slag heap from the coal burning trains. Dad, grandfather and all those people arrested were sent to jail in Oakalla. We camped for three weeks next to that zhuzhlitsa. People brought food and the men set up tents for sleeping though many slept outside. For cooking, there was a big pot over a fire. The cook, Pavel Skripnik was a friend of Dad’s. He was from the Ukraine and educated as a priest, but he supported the Doukhobor cause. He was tall and thin, and so kind and caring. We would line up with our bowls and he would ladle some soup into them. Mother was respected and Paranya Voykin and Mr. Pereverzoff helped with the twins. Mr. Pereverzoff always carried Luba – she barely walked yet. I also felt responsible for my brothers and sister and was always keeping an eye out for them. There was no place to get clean and it was so dusty, but we children didn’t care about that; we ran around and played together. There were a lot of friends. People would come and go, but we stayed because dad and grandfather were in jail.
Then the police rounded us up and the women and all of us children were moved into the Salvation Army building. We were scared, remembering what happened to grandfather and dad. The people there gave us a little soup and we all slept together huddled on the floor. After about four days, police took us to Porto Rico, a logging camp up in the mountains close to Ymir. The men were there already. It’s funny I don’t remember how we got there. When you try to forget something, not all the memories come back right away.
The Maloff family at Porto Rico, October 1929. (l-r) Elizabeth, John, Lusha, Luba and Peter. Photo courtesy Vera Malloff.
When we first got to Porto Rico, I was wondering how we could live there. Porto Rico had been a large sawmill owned by the Doukhobors, but it was abandoned when the trees were all cut down. There was a big old barn, kitchen area and some bunk houses, but many of the buildings were starting to fall down and there were no doors or windows on them. That first night everyone slept together on the floor of what I think had been the eating area of that camp. The men had a lot of work to do so we could live there. Porto Rico was in a rainy, snowy area. It got very cold in the winter.
We were lucky. George Nazaroff prepared a room in the bunk house for his family – made it a little more weather proof, found fire wood, built bunk beds; but he gave the space to mom because he respected our dad a lot and since dad wasn’t there for us, he helped us out. There was a pot belly stove in our room – the police brought us some stoves. My brother Pete and I slept together on one bunk, just on the boards, and mom with the babies on another, so they would keep warmer, but we still woke up to frost on our blankets. The men did the cooking and everyone shared. Mom would go to the kitchen and bring back some soup for us. But there wasn’t much.
George Nazaroff organized a school. Though he wasn’t trained to teach, he became the teacher. And he was good. Every morning, he would sit everyone down and make sure everyone would be very quiet and listen. There were lots of children, but he controlled everyone and made sure we were peaceful. He was a peaceful guy himself and it didn’t matter how disturbed everyone was, he was calm. We didn’t have books, paper or pencils, so we learned our prayers and sang psalms and songs. Our homework was to memorize a prayer for the next day.
I remember Mr. Nazaroff and his family well. He was a heavier man and his wife was a small, thin woman. His daughter, Grace – Hrunya, was two years older than me, but her hair was still in braids like mine, with hair a little darker than my blond. Later we would talk about what happened and she reminded me how their dad helped us out and gave us their room. Sam – Syomka was the same age as me and boy, was he rambunctious and he liked to tease. We each had a different prayer or song to remember and he would often copy me and memorize what I was supposed to memorize, just for a trick. Mary, the youngest was a baby.
We came to Porto Rico at the end of September and at first it was fairly warm. We played tag and the older boys built a raft that they used to cross the creek, pushing it back and forth with long poles. Us girls stood on the bank and watched. It seemed like so much fun. Sometimes they invited us to stand on the raft and take a trip across the creek. I only got a chance to do that once. I had to help mom with the twins. We had a picture taken there. Mom got all of us organized and sitting down on a bench. The photographer, Mike Voykin was just learning how to use the camera, so we would be sitting there and he would say, “Just a minute, I have to fix something.” It was hard to keep the twins still, but finally he took the picture.
At first we were allowed visitors. Friends and relatives came all the way from Grand Forks. They brought us food and we greeted them with such joy. Then the police told us that we couldn’t have any more company. They had set up a blockade on the road to the camp with policemen stopping everybody. However, my Uncle Nick got through somehow. He asked everyone he knew in Ootishenia to give food, blankets, clothing or he said that “they will all perish.” So he filled his truck up with a huge load and came. Everyone was surprised he got through the police blockade. He teased us “Here you are you devils. Eat or you will perish like rats.” He was kind hearted, but liked to tease. He had to leave quickly though or he wouldn’t be able to get back out. I think that grandmother left with him, because after he left, she was gone too.
And then the snow came. There was so much snow it almost piled up to the roofs. The nights were so cold and long. Mom would go to the kitchen and bring us some food and we ate huddled together. Maybe people got together in the evenings, I don’t know, we stayed in our room. Luba and John were still young so we couldn’t leave them alone.
We got through that winter, and then people began to be allowed to leave. My mother’s brother, John Hoodicoff came to pick us up and we came home. There was still a lot of snow in Porto Rico when we left, but in Thrums it was early spring. It was already planting time. Mom said we had to plant a garden so that we would have food. Dad came home later in that spring.
I heard that they found three graves by the logging camp and some people know who died, but I was a child, nine years old and I don’t remember that. What happened to me is that I always tried to block that life out, but gradually it is coming back. The main thing is that I pulled through everything.
I often asked Dad why we had to have such a hard life, why he had to be so outspoken all the time and why he had go to jail. As a child, he told me that we could have had an easier life, but he spoke out against war so there wouldn’t be any cripples, no orphans, so that children would have their dads, that there must be a better way. But there was a price to pay.
This is my mother’s story. My mother, Elizabeth, is now in her nineties. The family did not know about her Porto Rico internment until recently when we found pictures of the men, women and children camped in Nelson and she began to tell us what happened when she was nine years old. In the eighty years that have passed, the reasons for the protests of the time have become blurred and the internment in the isolated, barely habitable logging camp, Porto Rico is something that few remember and many would rather forget.
Little is known about the internment of Doukhobor men, women and children in Porto Rico, so wishing to learn more I investigated the local newspapers of the time. The headline of a local newspaper, Rossland Miner of September 5, 1929 read “DOUKHOBORS JAILED WHEN TAKE TO NUDE [sic]” The reporter gave a description of arrests made August 30 of Doukhobors in South Slocan. The situation began with the police demanding the Doukhobors deliver four men who had previously “paraded nude” along the highway in South Slocan, but quickly became a struggle as the arrests were made of one hundred twenty eight Doukhobor men and women. The police officers were previously prepared.
Starting from Nelson in cars and busses of all descriptions commandeered for the purpose, the 60 special constables under the leadership of six provincial police officers drove quickly out to a point around a bend in the road about 100 yards from the South Slocan tennis courts where the fanatics were encamped. There they stopped while Inspector Cruikshank and other officers went on ahead to make the arrest of the four Doukhobors charged with indecent exposure. Sergeant Gammon explained (to the special police force) that they were required to stop any attempt made by the fanatics to prevent the arrest of their fellows and to arrest any of the Doukhobors who were stripped or started to strip. They were to arm themselves with switches and use them on any stripped members of the sect or those who showed fight….
Plying their switches viciously and dragging screaming Doukhoburs along the ground, the police officers went to work, to bring the crowd over to waiting busses, cars and trucks….
After about an hour all the Doukhobors were herded over to the trucks and nobody was left on the former camping site but some of the younger women most of whom did not disrobe, with the children.”
Subsequently the September 12, 1929 Rossland Miner headlines were:
“OKALLA [sic] JAIL TO BE FILLED WITH DOUKS. One Hundred and four were given six months for indecent exposure.” The protesters were tried five at a time with the judge saying, ‘I feel that it is time you people had a lesson.’ Speaking through an interpreter, he continued,’ Tell them they have had a fair trial….They will receive the full term imposed by the act for this offense, six months with hard labour.’….When one man protested that he was not satisfied with the trial, the magistrate commented ‘I feel it is a waste of time to explain matters to you.’ ”
It is known that some of the Svobodniki Doukhobor sect used nudity to attract attention to their message, declaring “If you will take everything from us, and do not let us live by our beliefs, then take our clothes also. We will stand before you naked in the world, but solid in our values.” Their message was often lost when the nudity was sensationalized and it became a way to incarcerate many, and to silence the protests. The effect of this nudity and subsequent imprisonment traumatized not only the children, men and women who survived Porto Rico , and the prisoners, who spent that winter in the infamous Oakalla jail doing time with hard labour, and but also suppressed the voices of a generation of Doukhobors like my mother or conversely helped create a radical movement of Svobodniki Doukhobors that over the next few years proceeded to get more extreme in their reactions to government repression.
Freedomite camp on the outskirts of Nelson, British Columbia, September 1929. Note the zhuzhlitsa (slag pile) in the background. Photo courtesy Vera Maloff.p
Few published accounts exist of the events which led to the arrest and imprisonment of 120 Svobodniki (“Freedomite” or “Sons of Freedom”) Doukhobors at Oakalla Prison and the internment of 236 of their brethren at Porto Rico in 1929. The following is a brief summary of those events, compiled from newspaper and other archival sources.
In the late 1920’s, a number ofFreedomitefamilies, evicted from their homes in Brilliant, Glade, and elsewhere in the Kootenays by the Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood, established a squatter camp on the edge of Thrums, an Independent Doukhobor settlement. On August 29, 1929, 356 of them staged a march to protest the recent jailing of Paul Vatkin for what they considered to be false arrest on charges of arson and, at the same time, took the opportunity to speak out against public education that promoted militarism and capitalism. They were joined by a number of Independent Doukhobors sympathetic to their cause.
When the protesters reached South Slocan, they were confronted by six provincial police officers and 60 special constables, who arrived there from Nelson to make the arrest of four of their brethren charged with indecent exposure. In the disruption that followed, a number of the protesters publicly disrobed. The police arrested 112 protesters and transported them by truck to the provincial prison in Nelson. On September 7, 1929, 104 of the adults were convicted of indecent exposure and sentenced to six months imprisonment. On September 11, 1929, they boarded a special train which transported them to Essondale near New Westminster, from which they were taken by bus to Oakalla Prison to serve their sentences. Eight children arrested with their parents were, because of being under age, committed to the care of the Superintendent of Neglected Children and placed in institutional shelters in Vancouver.
In the meantime, the remaining 244 Freedomiteswho had not been arrested at South Slocan marched on to Nelson to protest the jailing of their brethren. When they arrived there on August 30, 1929, they were escorted by provincial police to the railway tracks on the southern outskirts of the city, where they established a makeshift tent camp near a slag heap (zhuzhlitsa) from the coal burning trains. They remained there for three weeks.
On September 21, 1929, provincial police arrived at the Zhuzhlitsa camp and ordered the Freedomitesto move. They refused to do so, claiming that they had no homes to go to. A physical clash occurred when eight of the Freedomite leaders, whom the police first took in hand, resisted arrest. After these men were subdued and arrested, they were taken to the provincial prison in Nelson; then on September 26, 1929, they were convicted of obstruction of justice and sentenced to hard labour at Oakalla Prison. The remaining 200 Freedomite adults were confined, without arrest, in the provincial prison while 36 of their children were taken to the Salvation Army barracks; then on September 25, 1929, all 236 were transported by provincial police in busses and trucks to Porto Rico.
Porto Rico was a former Christian Community of Universal Brotherhood lumber camp situated some 15 miles south of Nelson. It had been abandoned in 1926 after it had been logged out and a forest fire destroyed the remaining timber stands. Following the mass arrests and confinements in Nelson, Doukhobor leader Peter Petrovich Verigin “offered” the camp to provincial authorities as a permanent habitat for the landless Freedomites. Provincial authorities seized the opportunity to forcibly confine the large group of radicals at the camp, without trial. Hence, it became an internment camp.
When the Freedomites arrived at the camp, they picked out living quarters from among the camp buildings, which consisted of a large sawmill, a big barn, kitchen area and several bunk houses. The majority of the buildings were windowless and doorless, and the men immediately set to work to repair their future homes to protect them against the ongoing winter, and to build basic furniture. The Freedomites eventually settled into life at the isolated, barely habitable camp. The men did the cooking and cutting lumber for firewood, while the women cleaned and looked after the children. Everything was shared. The provincial government supplied pot bellied stoves, along with some basic rations; however, there was a general shortage of food and supplies. These privations were alleviated, at least in part, by the supply of food, blankets and clothing by Independent and Community Doukhobors sympathetic to their plight. The provincial police maintained a blockade at the entrance to control access to and from the camp.
Despite the harsh conditions, hundreds of radical Doukhobors from Saskatchewan, Alberta and the United States voluntarily drifted into the camp, in a show of solidarity with the internees, so that by November 24, 1929, the number of Freedomites at Porto Rico had swelled to 537 persons.
The following year, on June 27, 1930, the Freedomites forcibly confined at Porto Rico were released from the camp and permitted to make their way, under police escort, through Nelson, back to their former homes in Thrums, Brilliant, Glade and elsewhere. However, 117 of the Freedomites who voluntarily arrived at Porto Rico remained there until May 3, 1932, when they finally abandoned the camp to stage a protest march in Nelson.
Elizabeth P. Maloff’s autobiographical story, as recorded by her daughter Vera, recalls these events from the perspective of a nine-year old Doukhobor girl. Her father, Peter N. Maloff, was a prominent Independent Doukhobor (and later a historian and self-styled philosopher of the movement) who sympathized with the Freedomite stance on public education and taxes. Inspired by their energy and fervour, the Maloff family joined one of the Freedomite protests against militarism and capitalism in 1929. When they were met by police at South Slocan, Elizabeth’s grandfather was one of the protestors arrested for indecent exposure and sentenced to Oakalla prison. When the rest of the family marched to Nelson and encamped there, her father was one of the leaders arrested for obstruction of justice and sentenced to Oakalla prison. Elizabeth, her mother, grandmother, and three young siblings, along with 236 others, were first incarcerated, without arrest, in Nelson provincial prison, then interned, without trial, at Porto Rico. Her narrative is one of the few first-person accounts which exists about this obscure and little-known chapter of Doukhobor history, making it a valuable addition to our knowledge of the period.
The story of Porto Rico is also important from a broader Canadian perspective. If “internment” is defined as the confinement of people, commonly in large groups, without arrest or trial, for preventative or political reasons (as opposed to “imprisonment” which is confinement as punishment for a crime), then there can be little dispute that the Sons of Freedom Doukhobors at Porto Rico, British Columbia in 1929 were subjected to interment at the hands of the Canadian state. Canadian history is replete with examples of internment: during the First and Second World Wars, internment camps were established on Canadian soil for enemy prisons of war, as well as for civilian enemy aliens, including Austro-Hungarian immigrants in 1916-1918, Italian nationals in 1940-1945, Japanese nationals in 1942-1945, and even Canadian citizens and Jewish citizens of England considered to be ‘fascist’ or ‘disloyal’. What is remarkable, however, is that virtually every Canadian example of internment took place during wartime. The story of the Sons of Freedom Doukhobors at Porto Rico, in sharp contrast, is one of the only occurrences of civilian internment during peacetime in modern Canadian history.
For a comprehensive listing of Freedomite Doukhobors arrested and incarcerated as a result of the 1929 protest march, see: Index of Sons of Freedom Inmates at Oakalla Prison Farm, Burnaby by Steve Lapshinoff. For an inventory of Freedomites forcibly interned (along with those voluntarily encamped) at Porto Rico in 1929-1930, see: Index of Sons of Freedom Camped at Porto Rico by Steve Lapshinoff. For a list of Freedomite burials at Porto Rico see: Porto Rico Doukhobor Cemetery by Lawrna Myers and Nick Kootnikoff.
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On January 18, 2013, Vera Maloff received a First Place award in the category of Adult Creative Non-Fiction for her story, Porto Rico at the 2012 Kootenay Literary Competition held at Nelson, British Columbia. The competition is hosted by the Kootenay Writers Society, a non-profit society dedicated to promoting, supporting and encouraging all writers in the Kootenay region of British Columbia. Vera’s work was published in the KLC anthology, Revolution.