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My project is about Doukhobors in BC. Sixty years ago about 200 Doukhobor children were taken from their families and put into a New Denver residential school. It was more like a prison camp. Some of the kids spent up to six years there. Now they want an acknowledgement that harm was done, and an apology.
What was the most interesting thing you learned about your topic?
The most interesting thing I learned was why Russian Doukhobors immigrated to Canada. In Russia they were persecuted because of their religion. They had to swear an oath to the Tsar and serve in the military. This was against their pacifist beliefs. In protest they burned hundreds of guns. Consequently, the Doukhobors were exiled to Siberia. They walked to Siberia in chained hands and legs. Many of them died along the way. At that time, Canada was looking for settlers to cultivate the Western Prairies. Canada wanted people who were skilled and hardworking farmers. They agreed to the Doukhobors' requests: they would be exempt from military service, they could farm their land communally, and they would retain control of their villages. Unfortunately, coming to Canada was not the end of Doukhobors' troubles.
What important lessons have you learned that you want to share with other Canadians?
I learned that people will sacrifice a lot for their beliefs. Canada forced its new immigrants to swear an oath of allegiance to the Crown. When they refused, cultivated land was taken away from two-thirds of the Doukhobors. The worst thing was that kids were forcibly taken from their parents and homes. The Doukhobors wanted their children to be homeschooled or in public schools with teachings of their beliefs. It was negotiated with the government, but the government insisted that the children learn just the Canadian way. Kids were not allowed even to speak Russian — the only language they knew. Today there are so many different kinds of schools. I feel sad that all those innocent children suffered for their religious beliefs. It is infuriating that an apology still hasn't been given to them.
How would you compare your life today to the lives of those studied in your project?
I met survivors of the New Denver camp. I am horrified adults would strap children for speaking Russian. Those children were 6-15 years old. At night one kid would start sobbing and a few minutes later all the kids would be crying. I saw the fence through which parents would try to kiss and touch their children. I cannot compare their lives to ours. I don`t know how I would ever get over an experience like that.