Skip to content

The Kootenays: Listening for the Echoes of the Past, Part 2

August 14, 2013

Wednesday saw us headed to Castlegar to visit the Doukhobor Discovery Centre.  The research of the region I mentioned in my last post had sparked an interest in these people.  I remembered as a child hearing negative news reports about them, portraying them as crazed religious fanatics and dangerous criminals.  My personal research cast them in a very different light.  My visit to the Discovery Centre added a bit to my understanding.

The Discovery Centre, beside the Columbia River on the original Doukhobor property known as Ootishenie, (The Valley of Consolation), first purchased in 1908, is a recreation of a typical early 1900s Doukhobor communal village with its two large houses or doms.  One dom is an interpretive center with photographs, tools, artifacts and a detailed (we found it overly long) video presentation on the history of the Doukhobors.  The other is furnished as a traditional home that would have housed as many as 50 people.  There is also a blacksmith shop and a steam bath or banya.

Afterward we stopped to walk across the Brilliant Suspension Bridge, built by the Doukhobors in 1913 over the Kootenay River just north of the Columbia River to link their communities of Brilliant and Ootishenie, now suburbs of Castlegar.  It is truly a remarkable engineering work.  The 331’ bridge was completed in just seven months, the Doukhobors contributing $40,500 to the government’s $19,500.  The Doukhobor community was made responsible for its upkeep.  It was used until completion of the new bridge in 1966.

When a few years ago I pored over the accounts of the settlement of the Doukhobors in Canada, I marvelled at their remarkable ingenuity and resourcefulness.  I was also appalled at the persecution suffered by these people and the injustices visited upon them by the Canadian authorities who, caving in to the whims of those driven by bigotry, jealousy and greed, reneged on agreements and broke promises made to the Doukhabor leaders.  

To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

The Canadian government had intended that the Doukhobors be assimilated into the dominant Anglo-Christian culture.  The Doukhobors, however, remained persistently isolated and refused acculturation. 

They tended toward exclusivity, not contributing to the development of schools, churches or towns, wanted no involvement in the Canadian political process, and had the advantage of numbers allowing them to purchase direct from wholesalers and sell their produce in volume, thereby bypassing local merchants.  Resentment over this led to persecution by the media and the government.  The actions of a radical minority were sensationalized and reframed to implicate all Doukhobors in a negative way.

The Doukhobors’ communal way of life also flew in the face of the Canadian agricultural ideal.  Severalty was the desirable norm.  Strong independent farmers with submissive wives were seen as the building blocks of the nation.

Many were jealous of the Doukhobors’ success. It seemed somehow unfair that these people could get ahead so quickly by pooling their labour and assets.  Growing up in southern Manitoba, I heard the self-same criticisms of the Mennonites.  Later I heard it directed toward Italians, Filipinos and others.

Doukhobor women challenged traditional gender roles in Canada.  They were regarded as equals by their husbands, and were fully involved in every familial and economic aspect of community life.  Since the men were often absent working away from home, women often wielded considerable political clout in their communities. Rather than being discouraged, this was celebrated by their husbands. Doukhobor women further challenged feminine norms by doing “men’s work” and taking outside employment.

Doukhobors saw marriage as a sacred union without need of sanction from the church or the government.  Divorce was easy where husband and wife could not get along, and was a matter that concerned only the community, dissolution of incompatible partnerships seen as for the common good.  Once divorced, individuals were free to remarry.  Claiming to act in the defense of women, the patriarchal government, through the RCMP and land officers, attempted to enter Doukhobor communities to register marriages and prohibit divorces.  They met resistance from a people suspicious of government intervention of any kind.  From the Doukhobors’ perspective, imposing the Canadian government’s model of marriage destabilized their families, subjugating women to their husband’s rule and legalizing gender discrimination.

In Saskatchewan at the opening of the 20th century, land was in demand.  Some resented that the Doukhobors were given special dispensation, allowing them to hold and work land communally.  In 1906, in response to public discontent, the federal government established the Homestead Act, which effectively reversed the Hamlet Clause in its agreement with the Doukhobors which allowed them to work the land communally, and instead insisted each man work his own land.  In 1907, the government announced the cancellation of all existing Doukhobor land titles where owners did not comply with the new Act.  They would have to re-register under the new terms or lose land titles altogether; either they accepted citizenship and naturalization, or they would be limited to fifteen acres per capita reserve land. 

The Doukhobors were a communal people, used to working the land together and opposed to individual land ownership.  Their faith compelled them to swear allegiance only to God.  Therefore few Doukhobors complied with the new law, and in 1907, 258,880 acres (1,047.7 km2) of Doukhobor lands reverted back to the Crown.  No compensation was forthcoming for improvements or crops.  Many were left with only 15 acres each, not enough to support a family. 

In BC, the schooling of Doukhobor children became a contentious issue.  The Doukhobors didn’t hold formal education in high esteem.  They objected to the glorification of war and religious aspects of public education of the time, seeing the values promoted as undermining family and community beliefs.  They also saw it as driving a wedge between generations, the young learning English and neglecting the traditional Russian.  It was usual for children to be taken out of school to work at home, and few stayed beyond age 12.  This, however, was common among all pioneer farm families.

Although Attorney General Bowser guaranteed in 1915 that no paramilitary or religious education would be forced upon Doukhobor children, the issue remained troublesome.  In 1932 Doukhobors who opposed formal education were imprisoned on Piers Island, a former leper colony 3 miles from Sidney, and their older children sent to the Provincial School for delinquent children while the younger ones were placed in foster homes where they remained for a year.  Although they were then placed with Doukhobor families, the damage was done.

During the period of 1953-1959, approximately 170 Doukhobor children, ages 7 to 15, were apprehended by the B.C. Government and RCMP in what was known as “Operation Snatch” and confined in New Denver in a prison-like residential school where they were forbidden to speak their own language or practice their own religion.  Parents were only allowed to visit two Sundays per month, and had to obtain special passes to do so.  The scars of this forced family separation remain to this day.

Although the federal government had agreed that Doukhobors would not be subject to military service, in 1947 Doukhobors in British Columbia were denied the vote both federally and provincially unless they served in the military. This restriction would not be lifted until 1957.

Canada’s treatment of the Doukhobors reflected the government policies of assimilation of minority groups, cultural genocide in reality, by force if necessary.  All attempts were shameful failures.

 DD7 6315_1024

On the last Thursday of our excursion into the Kootenays, we traveled to New Denver to visit the Nikkei Internment Memorial Centre.  The Centre is a repository for artefacts from the interment, telling the story of the Nikkei (people of Japanese descent) in Canada.  My personal experience of this “quiet place” was deeply emotional.  Although I had long before been aware of the plight of Japanese Canadians during World War II, the Centre triggered something within me, the injustices it documented evoking deeply felt indignation.  As I stood in one of the 24’x14’ tarpaper shacks that have been preserved there, I tried to imagine two families cramped into this space through a brutal Canadian winter, their breath and sweat condensing on the walls and open roof, turning to sheets of ice.  My years of experience in prison ministry allow me empathy with their experience of confinement.  Haiti has made me to some degree appreciate the depths of their depravation.

I have written and rewritten this post again and again, trying to put into words the outrage and the heaviness of heart I felt, and still feel, trying not to write just another history of the internment, just cold impersonal facts on the page. 

Ostracized, denied access to the larger Canadian society.  Suffering the ingrained racial prejudice endemic among the whites of the British Empire. Subjected to severe immigration caps.  Living in privation, persecuted, marginalized, exploited. Hated, feared, vilified, blamed for the racist attitudes and actions of the white majority.  Victims of violence, their homes and businesses vandalized.

B.C. is to be white man’s country. The majority of the residents are utterly opposed to the present flinging wide the gates to Asiatics. If the Government does not step in and put a stop to the already humiliating condition of affairs there will be another little episode like the one which occurred in Boston harbor when tea was thrown overboard. 

Vancouver Liberal MP Robert Macpherson, September, 1907

Disenfranchised, left without a political voice. Although allowed to attend university, barred from pursuing professions in law, pharmacy, architecture and chartered accountancy or in the civil service.  Ineligible to purchase crown land or hold hunting and sport fishing licenses.

No Chinaman, Japanese or Indian shall have his name placed on the Register of Voters for any Electoral District, or be entitled to vote at any election. 

British Columbia Elections Act, 1895.

Scapegoated by labour organizations as the source of white workers’ economic woes and maligned as a threat to their way of life.  Forced to work harder for lower wages than the white majority to get ahead and then denounced for doing so. Prohibited “for reasons of national security” from commercial fishing, one of their most lucrative sources of livelihood, their boats impounded and sold to their white competitors. 

Compelled to register with the RCMP, fingerprinted and photographed, obliged to carry identity cards at all times. Required to report to the police weekly.  Forbidden to travel more than twelve miles from their homes or change address without permission.  A dusk to dawn curfew imposed upon them.  Made subject to search without warrant.

Bombarded by the venomous rhetoric of racist politicians, a sensationalist press, and white supremacists determined to drive them from our shores.

Let our slogan be for the British Columbia:  “No Japs from the Rockies to the sea.”

Ian Alistair Mackenzie, MP
Vancouver Centre, and the federal government’s “acknowledged expert on Asian matters”, from his nomination speech, September 18,1944

The war afforded Canadians a “heavensent opportunity to rid themselves of the Japanese economic menace for ever more.” 

Maurice Pope, Military Staff Officer to PM Mackenzie King

With the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, sustaining a full-on assault from tenacious anti-Japanese zealots.   Betrayed by the governments they thought would protect them, and Prime Minister Mackenzie King, who for reasons of political expediency caved in to the agenda of the racists, declaring he had dealt with the problem “with loving mercy.”

Their loyalty to Canada suspect, stripped of their civil rights, demonized, labeled fifth columnists and “enemy aliens” in their own land.  Expelled from a 100-mile wide strip along the coast designated a “protected area”, created using the justification of “military necessity”.  Restricted from possessing motor vehicles, cameras, or radios.  Prohibited from owning lands or growing crops.  Japanese language newspapers shut down.

Their hard earned property—homes, businesses, vehicles, family heirlooms—impounded “for safekeeping” then immediately sold to whites for a pittance, the paltry proceeds used to pay auctioneers and realtors, the residue designated to pay the expense of their internment. 

Their places of worship desecrated, the ashes of their ancestors, left there for safekeeping, spilled out by those who stole the urns.

Two thousand forced to work at hard labour in road building camps and another four thousand on Prairie sugar beet farms at starvation wages, housed in granaries and chicken coops.  By my mother’s report, often men, women and children hoeing by lantern light well into the night.

No person of Japanese origin in any work camp, village, town, municipality, or other area to and in which they have been duly authorized or directed to proceed shall leave such place without the authority of the commission or the officials of the R.C.M. Police.

Internment camp regulations

12,000 “evacuated” “for their own protection” at a few hours notice, families torn apart, herded into cattle stalls in Vancouver’s Hastings Park to await in degrading and barbaric conditions, sometimes for months, being freighted in sealed trains to unknown destinations in the harsh climate of BC’s interior.  Those who resisted in any way sent to languish in prisoner of war camps in Ontario.  By November 1942, 20,881 Japanese Canadians uprooted, 13,309 Canadian citizens by birth.

Victims of racist legislation that contravened the Geneva Convention, but weaseled around the law by doublespeak, dubbing the internment camps with the euphemism “relocation camps”, and officially “detained at the pleasure of the Minister of Justice,” a designation normally reserved for the mentally ill.

Huddled in tents in the snow in decaying mining towns until the hastily built shacks and renovated buildings that would house them until the end of the war were ready. Enduring the institutionalized discrimination of the camps, living in squalor, constantly under surveillance, letters censored, freedom of movement restricted.

Faced with fifteen of the sixteen Members of Parliament from British Columbia, including “expert on Asian affairs” Ian Mackenzie, exerting continuous “political pressure…on behalf of the acceptance of a plan for total deportation after the war, of all Japanese either to Japan or some acquired Pacific Island.”  At war’s end again uprooted, forced to leave BC, ultimately given the choice of deportation to war-ravaged Japan, a country foreign to most of them, or dispersal east of the Rockies, where they were often ill housed and under employed.  Told by the government that it was in the best interest of Japanese Canadians “to distribute their numbers as widely as possible throughout the country where they will not create feelings of racial hostility”, suggesting that they were responsible for creating racism.  Almost 4000 deported before the Co-operative Committee on Japanese Canadians, a federation of organizations including church groups, civil libertarians and journalists, intervened and forced the government to change its policy.

Suffering a cultural genocide that resulted in the loss of language, identity and sense of community that has had a lasting effect on Japanese Canadians.  The lives they had built in Canada erased.

Waiting for the reinstatement of their right to vote until 1948.  Waiting until 1949 to be allowed to live wherever they chose.  Waiting forty-three years after the end of the war for acknowledgement of the wartime wrongs and paltry compensation packages for each individual directly wronged.

Later, in the meditative quietude of the Kohan Reflection Garden, a nearby pilgrimage site on the shores of Slocan Lake, I asked myself how this could have happened in Canada.  But I know the answer.  I also know that we have not learned much from this painful, unjust chapter in our national history, for as a nation we have tried to forget it.  And as philosopher George Santayana wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The Nikkei Internment Memorial Centre echoes, “Lest we forget…”



No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: