From 1953 to 1959, approximately 200 Doukhobor children, aged seven to 15 years old, were removed from their homes from the Grand Forks and Kootenay region and placed at the New Denver Residential School by the B.C. government and RCMP.
Almost 60 years later, the event still leaves Vera Dutoff nervous. A mother of two at that time, Dutoff recalls hearing the yelling from a neighbour across the Kettle River and that was all the warning families received before police would start knocking on doors minutes later.
“There were around four to five police cars each time,” stated Dutoff. “The man who would warn us would stop at as many homes as he could and say, ‘Hide them.’”
Dutoff recalled her own father standing outside with a pitchfork working and how the police thought he would fight them.
The police would ask if we had any school kids and her father would reply, ‘No we haven’t any school kids,’ stated Dutoff.
“The police would ask again, ‘Where are they?’ and my father would repeat again, ‘We haven’t any school kids’,” she said. “And that’s the way they asked.”
Police would proceed to check all the homes for children, before leaving; sometimes physically removing a child, sometimes empty-handed.
Children were then taken to the New Denver Residential School, located in New Denver, B.C., roughly 200 kilometres north of Grand Forks, because parents had refused to send them to school. The government claimed that the children were removed from what was perceived to be negative influences. To avoid having their children taken, parents hid them beneath traps doors or they told them to run into the mountains to hide.
Under a padded mat, a room in Dutoff’s old home had a trap door that opened to a small crawl space, just big enough for a child to hide.
When her children were older, they hid for several days in a small shack near the Canada-U.S. border along with several other children in the Gilpin area. The cycle was repeated several times over the course of six years.
Born two years after the New Denver Residential School closed, Dutoff’s daughter Katie Slastukin does not remember much but has been informed of what occurred.
“I remember (being told) that my older brothers used to go up into the hills whenever they would hear a police raid coming,” said Slastukin. “They had a little shack out near the border and they would camp out there for a couple of days at a time.”
Though Slastukin’s elder brothers weren’t caught, she noted that it affected everybody.
“All the kids that were (at the school) were entitled to counselling (after) – healing therapy, the (government) called it, but many chose not to do take it. They don’t want to open old wounds,” she stated. “The event spread to their spouses, siblings and children as well; the siblings of older children were affected by them not being there.”
Children were required to attend school until they were 15 years old. After that, they were able to leave the school or didn’t have to hide anymore.
“There are a lot of people who don’t want to talk about it,” explained Slastukin. “People remember but it still affects a lot of them.”
In April 1999, the B.C. Ombudsman completed a full investigation that produced Report No. 38, “Righting the Wrong, The Confinement of the Sons of Freedom Doukhobor Children.”
The report concluded that the Doukhobor children were wrongly confined and experienced many losses, including civil liberties, loss of language, religion and culture.
Doukhobor religion was based on the teachings of Jesus Christ and followed the laws of the Ten Commandments.
Some of the Sons of Freedom Doukhobors retaliated through arson, and protested nude through the streets.
Currently, the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal is hearing a complaint from the Sons of Freedom Doukhobor children, who continue to seek an apology and compensation from the government in response to the report.