Freedomites, also called Svobodniki or the Sons of Freedom, first appeared in 1902 in Saskatchewan, Canada, and later in the Kootenay and Boundary districts of British Columbia, as a Doukhobor group. Of the about 20,000 Doukhobor living in Canada today, about 2,500 are Freedomites.
The ideals of the Freedomites emphasize communal living and action, ecstatic religious doctrine, and anarchic attitudes towards external regulation. The objective of the Doukhobors in moving to Canada had been to escape religious persecution in Russia, but the community fractured soon after they arrived. The Sons of Freedom were the most radical of the resulting groups.
Although Canada at first provided a more tolerant religious environment than the Russian Empire, conflict soon developed, most importantly over the schooling of children and registration. The Svobodniki generally refused to send their children to school; the governments of Saskatchewan and later British Columbia would soon charge many of the parents for not sending the children to school.
The Svobodniki became famous for various public protests: sometimes publicly burning their own money and/or possessions, and mostly parading in public nude. There was a doctrinal justification for nudity (that human skin, as God's creation, was more perfect than clothes, the imperfect work of human hands), but the public nudity has generally been interpreted as a form of protest against the materialist tendencies of society.
A very small minority of the Freedomites were noted for their arson campaigns, as a sign of their protest against materialistic life. They targeted belongings and other material possessions. The attacks occurred throughout the 20th century, but the periods of greatest activity were during the 1920s and 1960s. Both arson and bombing were used. Targets included their own property and that of other Doukhobors to further exhibit their dislike of materialism, attacks on schools to resist government pressure to school Svobodnik children, and attacks on transportation and communications. One such incident was the bombing of a railway bridge in Nelson, British Columbia in 1961. Most of these acts were committed in the nude.
Among the reactions of the British Columbia and Canadian government was taking away Freedomite children and placing them in an internment center in New Denver. Abuse of these children was later alleged, and a formal apology demanded. The BC government made an official Statement of Regret that satisfied some, but not others. The Government of Canada has not apologized for its role in the removal, saying that it is not responsible for actions taken by the government in place 50 years ago.
Operation Snatch: timeline of actions taken
Between 1953 and 1959, roughly 200 Doukhobor children, aged 7-15 year old were seized by the B.C. Government, the RCMP and the Federal Government. These children were confined in New Denver, B.C. in a prison-like setting. These Sons of Freedom children experienced a loss of their human rights throughout their improper imprisonment by the B.C. Government, this is what is known as "Operation Snatch". The following is a timelines of the actions that were taken leading up to, during and after the confinement of these children.
- 1952. Newly elected Social Credit government lead by W. A. C. Bennett begins to take a tougher stance on the "Doukhobor Problem".
- Meanwhile, a report led by the University of British Columbia is released, discouraging the seizure of the Sons of Freedom children.
- 1953. The conservative Social Credit government is determined to end the "disorder" caused by the radical Sons of Freedom.
- A new law, the Compulsory Education Act makes state-run education for all children mandatory. Shortly thereafter, the government begins shipping student off to residential schools.
- September 9, 1953. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) arrests 148 adults for parading nude near a school; they are placed on a train, taken to Vancouver convicted and sentenced to terms in the Oakalla prison.
- January 18, 1955. The RCMP put “Operation Krestova,” into action and raided the Village of Krestova.
- Operation Krestova is declared a success as 70 policemen went in and removed 40 children from their homes. The number of children in the New Denver school is increased to 72.
- The Department of Health would only approve a maximum of 45-50 children.
- 1955. The government considers applying the Protection of Children Act to the Sons of Freedom children. This would allow the children to be held in New Denver until they reached 18 years old, for being truant from school.
- January 6, 1956. Five members of the RCMP sent searching for truant children pursuant to a search warrant.
- May 1956. It is recommended that family visits to the school were to be reduced to one hour, once every three months and to only two family members were to be present in the Dorm.
- July 1956. The second director takes over as head of New Denver school, a fence is put up around the grounds. Visits with parents are conducted through the fence as RCMP patrol the grounds during the visits.
- 1956: Doukhobors in B.C. regain the right to vote in provincial and federal elections.
- July 31, 1959. Parents compelled to swear an oath in court before the magistrate, undertaking to send their children to school.
- August 2, 1959. A special day for the children of New Denver; the remaining 77 children in New Denver are released.
- 1956 to 1959. A review the director's monthly note, reveals that punishment was given on many occasions, in the form of lost family visits.
- 1959–1962: Freedomites destroy the property of the Community and Independent Doukhobors; the Canadian Pacific Railway and public buildings.
- Hundreds of Freedomites are arrested and jailed during this time.
- 1961: Doukhobors in B.C. are able to buy back their land from the provincial government; but was restricted to individual people who were not a part of a commune.
- 1962: Sons of Freedom members from the town of Krestova, make their way to Vancouver to raise public awareness of their situation and in protest to the arrest of their supporters for arsons and bombings, that took place.
- B.C. Civil Liberties Association is launched, based on the human rights concern about their treatment by the government.
- 1964–1984: The Doukhobors are the primary organizers for many of the anti-war and anti-arms demonstrations in Canada, as well as a 50, 000 kilometre "Peace and Friendship Caravan International" from B.C. to the USSR.
- 1971: A new policy of multiculturalism is announced by the Government of Canada, the intention is to commemorate and to recognize the diversity of Canadians.
- a replica of the Doukhobor Community Home near Castlegar, B.C. has been completed by The Kootenay Doukhobor Historical Society.
- 1975: Following the destruction of the Union of Spiritual Communities of Christ Community Centre in Grand Forks, the USCC opens a new community centre in Grand Forks.
- The Freedomites were suspected of setting fire to the USCC Community Centre.
- 1980: Official opening of the National Doukhobor Heritage Village in Verigin, Saskatchewan, centred on the dom or community home built for Peter V. Verigin.
- 1982–1986: After 40 years of bombings and arson by the Sons of Freedom, the B.C. government organizes the Expanded Kootenay Committee on Intergroup Relations
- Bringing together representatives of various Doukhobor groups, government departments and police.
- 1999. Ombudsman report is released; it called for an apology that was unconditional, clear and public; it also listed other recommendations for reconciliation. Shortly thereafter, the government starts to formulate a response; deciding that all legal suits that were asking for compensation for abuse straight to the courts. None of these lawsuits were successful.
- March 2000:The Law Commission of Canada completed an extensive study on Institutional Child Abuse in Canada producing a final report entitled "Restoring Dignity.
- The Law Commission of Canada recommended that the Provincial and Federal Governments correct the historical wrongs, would be in the best interests of Canadian society.
- October 2004. Members of the New Denver Survivors Collective attended the Victoria Legislature; believing they would finally be granted an apology.
Operation Snatch: additional information
When the government made a decision to seize the Sons of Freedom children, it was in an attempt to respond to the widespread civil disorder happening in the Kootenays. 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?
In the years leading up to the creation of the residential school's, the Sons of Freedom had become a concern for the province of British Columbia as a whole; they seemed to have a problem with any sort of government, in addition to the laws and policies that were being enforced. Public and Authorities were unhappy because the Sons Of Freedom did not register their births, deaths or marriages that occurred within their communities; in addition to the fact that they weren't sending their children to public schools. Public alarm was increasing, based on the fears that the unruly incidents of nude protests, burning of homes and buildings and bombings of bridges and railways, were not being attended to by the RCMP.
"It was between 5 a.m. and 6 a.m. and Elsie Ericson's mother had just begun lighting the stove when four RCMP officers barged into their tiny wooden home in the village of Krestova, B.C. The child jumped out of bed and hid under it, only to be dragged out by their feet. Elsie and her brother spent the next four years in what she said felt like a jail. They were housed with nearly 200 other in a residential school in New Denver, B.C."
- Florence Storgoff
- Mountain Institution
- Doukhobor Geaneology Website
- New Denver Survivors
- Great Unsolved Mysteries in Canadian History-Explosion on the Kettle Valley Line: The Death of Peter Verigin
- Doukhobors/Sons of Freedom in French
- CBC News: Doukhobor survivors want apology from B.C.
- Attorney General's Statement of Regret to Sons of Freedom Doukhobor Children
- Ombudsman: Province Of British Columbia Righting the Wrong: The Confinement of the Sons of Freedom Doukhobor Children: Public Report No. 38 to the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia
- BC Ombudsman's report questioning the Attorney General's "apology"
- CBC Archives: Doukhobor bomb blast ignites fear in the Kootenays
- Global News: 16:9 - Lost Childhood
- Spirit Wrestlers, Jim Hamm Productions, 2002 documentary video and DVD about the Freedomite Doukhobors.
- Doukhobors want apology from B.C. government
- Righting the wrong: The confinement of the sons of freedom Doukhobor children
- F.M. Mealing (1976), Sons-Of-Freedom Songs in English Canadian Journal for Traditional Music.
- "Bomb Blasts Rail Bridge in Kootenay". The Spokesman-Review. 11 December 1961. Retrieved 4 October 2010.
- "Russia Handed Propaganda Gift By Persecuted Sect In Canada". Miami News. 21 January 1958. Retrieved 19 November 2010.
- "Doukhobor children in New Denver suffered the loss of their human rights during the unlawful confinement by the B.C. government in what is known as "Operation Snatch".". Stolen Children of the Doukhobors. The New Denver Survivors.
- "Righting the Wrong: The Confinement of the Sons of Freedom Doukhobor Children". Public Report No. 38 to the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia. Ombudsman: Province Of British Columbia.
- Makortoff, Kalyeena (May–Jone 2012). "Doukhobors want apology from B.C. government". Vancouver: The Globe & Mail.
- "Explosion on the :Kettle Valley Line: Timeline". Great Unsolved Mysteries in Canadian History. Great Unsolved Mysteries in Canadian History.
- Makortoff, Kalyeena. "B.C. Doukhobors forced into residential schools want apology akin to natives’". The National Post.