doukhobors & freedomites

 

March 19, 2021

The arrival of Russian Doukhobors in Vernon and the Okanagan Valley is a story flush with tension and resilience.

Thousands of Doukhobors began arriving in Canada between 1899 and 1914, escaping oppression under the regime of Tsar Nicholas II.

The first group of Doukhobors settled four colonies in what would later become the province of Saskatchewan.

The Doukhobor homestead crisis of 1907 caused some of their number to leave Saskatchewan for British Columbia and by the 1930s, they reached the Okanagan Valley.

cultural & spiritual divide

Doukhobors were perceived as a a cheap source of labour during World War Two. Although their wages where higher in the Okanagan Valley than in the Kootenays, they were paid considerably less than English-speaking labourers.

The cultural and spiritual divide between the Doukhbobors and their British neighbors strained relationships between the two groups.

Several articles in the Vernon News from the early 20th-century describe the Doukhobors as “crazy,” “trouble,” and “fanatics.”

sons of Freedom

This reputation for fanaticism among the Doukhobors was due to the actions of a minority sect among them, the “Freedomites,” or “Sons of Freedom.”

The Freedomites espoused a return to the more traditional Russian-style of communal living and self-governance. 

 

Doukhobors in Okanagan fields
(Image credit: Vancouver Public Library. Photo No. 17115)

 

 

The foyer of Vernon’s Professional Building after a terrorist attack by Freedomites in 1958. The actions of this minority group contributed to generalized anti-Doukhobor sentiment.(GVMA)

 

 

During the 1950s, they became known for their public protests; they burned money, refused to send their children to public schools, and paraded nude through busy streets. In response, many Freedomite children were snatched by the Canadian government and placed in an internment camp in New Denver.

Although pacifism and anti-war sentiment is a fundamental component of the Doukhobor belief system, some Freedomites used violent means to advance their message and oppose the imprisonment of their children. In the early hours of August 14, 1958 a bomb went off in Vernon’s Professional Building on 31st Street, causing extensive damage but no injuries. The detonation coincided with attacks on post offices in Oliver and Osoyoos, and five male Freedomites were later arrested and charged.

statement of regret

The relationship between the federal government and the Doukohbors improved gradually over the next few decades, following investigations into the systematic abuse suffered by Doukhobor children, the establishment of the Expanded Kootenay Committee on Intergroup Relations, and a 2004 “statement of regret” by the Government of B.C. Members of the Doukhobor community are still seeking an official apology.

Today, Vernon is home to more than 2,000 people of Russian descent.

Gwyn Evans

what this site has seen

January 10, 2020

The site of Vernon’s W.L. Seaton Secondary and MacDonald Park is fraught with memories. Not only was it the former location of a World War One internment camp, but also less commonly known, a Hospital for the Insane. An article from the Vernon News of 1946 indicates that even then it was hard to find people who knew, or were willing to talk, about the Hospital that once occupied a turn-of-the-century brick building, lined by an avenue of trees. 

 

Seaton Secondary

 

Photo of “The Asylum”, Vernon, BC, 1902

Today, the hospital’s history is virtually unknown, buried, perhaps accidentally, perhaps intentionally, beneath the location’s current uses.

The building was built in the spring of 1902, and was originally used as a jail until 1904, when the Provincial Insane Asylum in News Westminster was overcrowded. Two carloads of inmates were sent from the Coast to Vernon, while prisoners of the former jail were sent to Kamloops; by the end of the year, there were forty-eight inmates in total.

In the 1946 Vernon News article, well-known Vernonite Fred Hardwood recalled visiting the hospital as a grocery delivery boy; he said that the order was collected by a Chinese cook who was an inmate, as well as a talented chef and master of mental calculation.

The building was surrounded by beautiful flower and vegetable gardens, but an underperforming hot water system, and a worn out furnace and boiler, made life on the inside rather bleak.

The hospital closed in 1912, and the sixty-nine patients were transferred back to New Westminster. The site stood vacant until 1914, when it became an internment camp for so-called enemy aliens. The building was destroyed some time before 1943, and with it the memories of the men and women who had been locked behind its doors.

We are lucky that this past is behind us, and the location has been put to much more positive uses; however, the Hospital for the Insane remains an important, if unfortunate, aspect of our city’s history, and one that must be uncovered if we are to avoid making the same mistakes in the future.

Gwyn Evans