Freedomites, also called Svobodniki (Russian: "free people"), later called the Sons of Freedom, first appeared in 1902 in Saskatchewan, Canada, and later in the Kootenay and Boundary Districts of British Columbia (BC), as zealots who separated from Doukhobors. Of about 20,000 active Doukhobors in Canada today, ancestors of about 2,500 were Freedomites, of which very few today identify with or practice zealous protesting, and many joined Community Doukhobors.
Confusion that Freedomites were Doukhobors arose because all moved to Canada together to escape religious persecution in Russia, and seek land and freedom. A few, unsatisfied with broken promises by the Canadian government, attempted to trek back to Russia, and called followers of their break away movement Svobodniki (translated as Freedomite in the press). Journalists rushed to the story when some protested nude, but mistakenly mixed the terms Freedomites with the law abiding Doukhobors, falsely implying that different groups were one group.
Freedomite meetings were similar to other spiritual Christian folk-Protestants from Russia. They met in simple buildings, sat on benches, prayed in Russian, sang religious hymns and songs in Russian, and spoke about matters of religious and community interest mostly in Russian. The ideals of the Freedomites emphasized basic traditional Russian communal living and action—growing food, building homes, living a peaceful rural life, ecstatic religious doctrine when agitated for protest, and anarchic attitudes towards external regulation.
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 land registration. These Svobodniki (Russian: free people) generally refused to send their children to government-run schools. The governments of Saskatchewan and later British Columbia did not heed reports by sociologists to appease the concerns of parents, and chose to legally 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 possessions and parading nude in public. 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. The public nudity has generally been interpreted as a form of protest against the materialist tendencies of society.
A small minority of the Freedomites were noted for their arson campaigns, as a 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. The first use of explosives occurred in 1923, and two were killed by their own bombs in 1958 and 1962. Targets included their own property and unfortunate Doukhobor neighbors to further exhibit their loathing 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, were seized by the BC government, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), and the federal government in "Operation Snatch". These children were confined in New Denver, BC in a prison-like setting. The Sons of Freedom children lost their human rights throughout their imprisonment by the BC government.
The following is a timeline of the actions that were taken leading up to, during, and after the confinement of the children.
- 1952. Newly elected Social Credit government led by W. A. C. Bennett begins to take a tougher stance on the "Doukhobor Problem".
- Meanwhile, a report 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 made state-run education for all children mandatory. Shortly thereafter, the government began shipping students to residential schools.
- September 9, 1953. The RCMP arrests 148 adults for parading nude near a school. They are 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 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 of age, for being truant from school.
- January 6, 1956. Five members of the RCMP are sent searching for truant children pursuant to a search warrant.
- May 1956. It is recommended that family visits to the school be reduced to one hour every three months by only two family members.
- July 1956. A 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 BC regain the right to vote in provincial and federal elections.
- 1958. One Son of Freedom killed by his own bomb
- July 31, 1959. Parents are compelled to swear before a magistrate to send their children to school.
- August 2, 1959. The remaining 77 children in New Denver are released.
- 1956 to 1959. A review of the director's monthly notes 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 BC are able to buy back their land from the provincial government. Buy-backs were restricted to individuals who were not part of a commune.
- 1962. One Son of Freedom was killed by his own bomb
- 1962: Sons of Freedom from the town of Krestova, make their way to Vancouver to raise public awareness and in protest of the arrest of their supporters for arson and bombings.
- The BC Civil Liberties Association is launched, based on the human rights concerns 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 BC 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, BC 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 BC government organizes the Expanded Kootenay Committee on Intergroup Relations. It brings together representatives of various Doukhobor groups, governmental departments, and police.
- 1999. An ombudsman's 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 be sent straight to the courts. None of these lawsuits was 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, in the best interests of Canadian society.
- October 2004. Members of the New Denver Survivors Collective attended the British Columbia Legislature, believing they would finally be granted an apology. Instead, Geoff Plant delivers a "statement of regret" on behalf of the BC government.
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."
- 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[permanent dead link]
- F.M. Mealing (1976), Sons-Of-Freedom Songs in English Canadian Journal for Traditional Music.
- "Website". USCC Doukhobors. Retrieved 14 May 2017.
- Tarasoff, Koozma J. "News War" (slides). Evolution of the Doukhobor Movement. p. 42. Retrieved November 18, 2016.
- Hawthorn, ed., Harry B. (1955). The Doukhobors of British Columbia. Vancouver: University of British Columbia and J. M. Dent and Sons Ltd.
- Torrance, Judy (May 1, 1988). Public Violence in Canada, 1867-1982. McGill-Queen's Press - MQUP. p. 244.
- "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" (PDF). Public Report No. 38 to the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia. Ombudsman: Province Of British Columbia.[permanent dead link]
- Makortoff, Kalyeena (May 21, 2012). "Doukhobors want apology from B.C. government". Vancouver: The Globe & Mail. Retrieved December 22, 2015.
- "Explosion on the :Kettle Valley Line: Timeline". Great Unsolved Mysteries in Canadian History. Great Unsolved Mysteries in Canadian History.
- Torrance, Judy (May 1, 1988). Public Violence in Canada, 1867-1982. McGill-Queen's Press. p. 244. ISBN 0773505903.
- Makortoff, Kalyeena. "B.C. Doukhobors forced into residential schools want apology akin to natives'". The National Post.