B.C. attorney general apologizes to Doukhobors, offers $10M ‘compensation package’

B.C. attorney general apologizes to Doukhobors, offers $10M 'compensation package'
THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. Attorney General Niki Sharma responds to questions outside B.C. Supreme Court in Vancouver on Monday Nov. 27, 2023. Sharma formally apologized to children who were removed from their homes more than 70 years ago, largely due to their families' religious beliefs.

British Columbia’s attorney general has formally apologized to members of the Doukhobor religious group, including those who were forcibly taken from their parents more than 70 years ago.

Niki Sharma’s apology Thursday came with a promise of $10 million for community programs and education aimed at providing “lasting recognition of historical wrongs” committed against the Sons of Freedom Doukhobor and their families.

In the 1950s, hundreds of children of Sons of Freedom members were taken to a former tuberculosis sanatorium, in part because their parents opposed government rules and refused to send them to public schools.

Sharma acknowledged the children were “mistreated both physically and psychologically.”

“This is not a proud history. The Province of British Columbia recognizes the stigma and trauma experienced by the Sons of Freedom and the broader Doukhobor community,” she said in a transcript of remarks to be delivered at an event attended by survivors in Castlegar, B.C.

“And so today, on behalf of the Province of British Columbia, we acknowledge and apologize for the past injustices that were committed by the Province of British Columbia.”

Sharma said government also levied fines against the group and seized communal property over infractions that included school absenteeism.

She said between 1931 and 1959, hundreds of Sons of Freedom members were convicted and handed sentences of up to three years.

Sharma said the $10-million “compensation package” includes money to preserve and promote the community’s cultural heritage and historic sites, support educational and cultural programs, conduct research and expand access to mental health services.

“This apology and these initiatives are predicated on the hope that those impacted by these injustices are able to access the support they need to heal, and to ensure that such violations of human rights are prevented from happening ever again in this province,” Sharma said, according to the transcript.

Last year, B.C.’s ombudsman Jay Chalke called for the province to provide financial compensation “for individuals and the group,” as well as make an apology.

The Sons of Freedom were a small group within the Doukhobor community, an exiled Russian Christian group, and were once known for naked protests and periodically burning down their own homes as a rejection of materialism.

In a separate statement, Premier David Eby said Thursday the province forcibly removed children, leaving parents to visit them through chain link fences.

“Courts would not let this happen today, and it should not have happened then,” Eby said.

“There is no more sacred a relationship than parent and child, and that relationship was broken for a whole community, resulting in harms that have echoed for generations. Today, we acknowledge the pain experienced by Sons of Freedom Doukhobor children and families.”

Sharma is scheduled to attend a community event in Grand Forks, B.C., on Friday and Eby will also deliver the apology in the legislature on Feb. 27.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 1, 2024.

Ashley Joannou, The Canadian PressAshley Joannou, The Canadian Press

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